The Black Dog Barks During the Holidays

It was five years ago when I got the news. Weeks after I lost my mind and I became unhinged and I hurt people with words that I remain deeply ashamed of and I attempted to throw myself off the Manhattan Bridge to end my life and I issued numerous heartfelt apologies and I was spending my subsequent time trying to dig my way out of sadness by extending empathy to people who were more damaged than me in a Bellevue psych ward.

Then it happened.

That’s when the psychiatrist took me into a room and gently said the words that startled me: “Ed, you have bipolar disorder.”

I’ve never confessed this to anyone outside of a few of my closest friends. But I’m saying it now. Publicly. Because I want to own who I am.

I have a disability. And I no longer want to feel any shame about my condition.

I know that I can still live a healthy and positive life. I know that I’m usually a great pleasure to be around and that plenty of people who have taken the time to know me are incredibly understanding and see the great good in me. I held down a job for four years before resigning to pursue other opportunities. I put together an audio drama out of my apartment from nothing, one featuring dozens of tremendously talented actors who are all dear to my heart. I went from being homeless and broke to having my own place in Brooklyn within nine months — a far from easy trajectory. I have devoted every day of the last five years to performing a secret good deed to pay back the universe for any hurt that I have caused people. I know that I have changed — and even saved — numerous lives for the better, but I still believe it’s incredibly self-serving to discuss all the good that I have done. So I usually stay silent about all this.

I have learned that I have to let people make the choice to have me in their lives and to see me for who I truly am. You can’t stack the deck when it comes to social bonds. This has made me, on the whole, a lot happier.

Still, I am very sad and hopeless when the holidays come around. Because this is the time of year that represents an anniversary that often stops me in my tracks and leaves me paralyzed in bed for hours, unable to read or write or watch movies or edit audio or even respond in a timely manner to the texts of friends. And the shame is so deep that, as of right now, I somehow cannot even find it within me to accept a friend’s incredibly generous invite to join her family for Christmas dinner. Because the idea of not having a family, and the crazed associative seduction that comes from believing a narrative in which nobody loves or cares for me, is all part of the black dog’s insidious plan to take over my life.

I know that I have to be on heightened alert before December 26th. When that glorious day comes around, I am usually the happiest. Because I am finally at peace. Until the next year rolls around. You see, the black dog likes to come out and bark during the holidays — as it did recently when a man told me that he would beat me to an inch of my life on the subway because he thought that I was looking at him when I wasn’t. And I was so hopped up, so fully prepared to get into a fistfight with the bastard and show him who was boss. Thankfully a kind soul interceded and there was no violence. The black dog kept growling. He was thrilled by the promise of shaking himself loose from the leash and the cage. I challenged a film critic a little too hard on Twitter over the most trifling subject imaginable and I allowed a writer who I had once admired to debase and belittle and disrespect me and I responded to him — stupidly and privately — with four emails (three vituperative, the last an apology for the previous trio but a firm effort to stick up for myself) expressing how much he had hurt me for cavalierly writing me off and dismissing me after all that I had done for him over the years and all that he did not know about me or my life. It was disgraceful. I want to be clear that I’m not proud of any of this. I was so beaten down from all this that I posted a series of gloomy tweets (since deleted), including a poll asking users if the universe was better off without me. Friends became concerned. God damn that black dog. What a selfish asshole. Causing people worry. Upsetting people dear to me. Wanting to strike lexical terror against people who didn’t deserve it. But I’m grateful to my friends beyond words. I am also deeply ashamed of how I fell victim to the black dog. I received texts. Direct messages. Phone calls. One of America’s most trusted newsmen even tracked down my number and called me to make sure that I was okay, gently telling me that I was irreplaceable and listening to me gab for a ridiculously long time, understanding all the while that this was my way of finding humor in a terrible predicament. It was one of the sweetest things anybody could do. I would defend that man with my life.

What all these incredible people were trying to tell me is something I never got to hear five years ago: “Ed, you have bipolar disorder, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t live a life and it doesn’t mean that we don’t see how you’ve turned your life around and it doesn’t mean that we don’t see the love you give out into the universe. You, in turn, are loved by us.”

That’s it. That’s all I needed to hear. It’s simple really. Love. It chases the black dog out of the room. It’s kryptonite against bad feelings. You’d think that people would recognize that love is the very quality that people would cleave to when others are feeling troubled. But in an age of cancel culture, in an epoch in which making sweeping judgments about who a person is based on a few social media snapshots is now the norm, we’re living in a world in which love is either disposable or at a premium.

This is one of the reasons why it’s taken me five years to own up and be up front about my disability. When people you love betray you and belittle you when you’re down and out, it represents a crippling pain that takes many years to reckon with. When people intuitively detect a moment to attack you as you’re doing your damnedest to be your best and truest self — and there’s no room or space for even the smallest screw-up — that’s when the shame sweeps over you. That’s when the charlatan humanists come out of the woodwork and say, “Hey, be a better person, you son of a bitch!” And the level of rage you feel because some mean-spirited and unthinking dope has summarily dismissed all that you’ve done to be better invites the black dog to dart out of the sagebrush with impunity. I don’t know if anybody can understand or sympathize with that. Looking at how my anger was expressed from a more objective perspective, I’m hard-pressed to empathize with the guy who was motivated by the black dog. But empathize I must. Because to not do so is to give into shame that deracinates personal growth.

The shame was planted not long after I was released from Bellevue. By a vicious podcaster who feigned friendship and who kept badgering me for an interview by phone and text and who I begged to leave me alone. I was trying to recover while living in less than ideal conditions: a crowded room in a homeless shelter in which violence was a regular occurrence and one had to be very careful. I finally agreed to talk with him so that his phone calls and his messages would stop. The podcaster kept saying, “People will understand you after this. Trust me.” Did he not know that I was still trying to comprehend myself? The podcaster proceeded to paint me as the greatest scoundrel who ever lived: a villain unwilling of forgiveness or understanding who had planned this strategy for attention-seeking all along. With casual cruelty, the podcaster negated the terrible truth that I was trying to grapple with: that I was deeply unwell and that I needed to adjust the way in which I lived so that I could be a functioning member of society. The look of selfish relish and rampant opportunism on his face. The way he sipped greedily from one cup of coffee and didn’t even offer to buy me one when I had a grand total of thirty-seven cents to my name. The methodical way that he gleefully punched down as I traced the spot on the bridge where I had tried to off myself. It was all shocking conduct. Behavior that I would never, not even in my darkest hour, offer to my worst enemy. And I was powerless. Desperate. Living with pain. All because I wanted to oblige and be understood after a significant share of people had permanently and justifiably departed from my life.

The shame was furthered by my toxic family. They refused to help me, not even offering me a place where I could simply sit for a few weeks and reckon with the pain of losing everything. They actively and enthusiastically left me for dead. I was forced to sever ties for my own emotional and mental health. The shame got hammered further by my ex-partner, who I had pledged in good faith and as I was feeling debilitating despair to leave alone and not bother again. She used the bipolar diagnosis as a weapon, an occasion to seek needless revenge. She sent me a legal letter in which the attorney declared that I was “retarded,” among other misleading legalese that dehumanized me and reduced me to a sobbing ball of nothingness before I could even come to terms with the truth of my revealed life. But I understand why she did this. I hurt her terribly with my crack-up and bear her no ill will. I was forced to show up in court with a court-appointed attorney on the morning after I had been abruptly moved without warning at two in the morning to another homeless shelter in East New York. I was penniless. I begged the staff to borrow a MetroCard and a razor. I somehow managed to arrive at the court fifteen minutes late dressed in the only sportscoat and tie that I had. That dreadful morning, my identity was attacked with relish. Friends were shocked by her behavior. They were shocked by my family. But I still had love from this small but growing cluster who realized the true score.

It’s bad enough being publicly shamed for words and actions that you never actually committed — such as the time last year in which the audio drama “community” bullied me days before Christmas and invented a series of vicious lies and uncorroborated falsehoods about me — ranging from me being a pedophile to living alone with chickens to harassing people who I had sent nothing but benign messages to — after my audio drama, The Gray Area, won a coveted Parsec Award. The holidays are bad enough for me, what with a family that has disowned me and the way in which so many people who need our love are left in the dust due to the selective application of what constitutes “holiday cheer.” But last year’s attacks sent me into a tail spin of heavy drinking and suicidal ideation in which I didn’t know if I was going to make audio drama again. Thank heavens I had the generous support of friends who patiently stayed on the phone with me and selflessly gave their time when they were very busy. Thank heavens I had an incredibly talented and kind cast who saw that I treated them well and who knew I kept things fun and relaxed and who still wanted to work with me. Months later, I was writing and recording again.

If you’re bipolar, you do have to reckon with and be honest about the behavior that you have actually committed. That’s already a hell of a handful. You look back at the past and you don’t recognize yourself. But if you’re bipolar and you’re something of a public figure, then you also have to deal with a set of false narratives on top of the unruly true one that you’re already trying to nail down.

I want to be clear that I’m not asking for your empathy or your pity. Whether you think I deserve it or not is not my business. And it shouldn’t be. Nor do I want to suggest that I’m using my bipolar disorder as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I’m simply telling you how it is. If you think I enjoy occasionally lashing out when the black dog is tearing into my leg with his vicious teeth, believe me I don’t. I don’t enjoy it anymore than the depressed person enjoys feeling sad but who is told by others who do not understand mental illness, “Say, why don’t you cheer up?” As if we people afflicted by black dogs haven’t considered these obvious solutions. If it were possible to instantly wake up one day and be permanently rid of the black dog, I’d do it in a heartbeat. The good news is that I’ve made adjustments and this isn’t occurring nearly as often as it used to. Thanks to therapy, I am quicker on the draw when it comes to shutting the black dog down or instantly apologizing on the rare occasions when he does growl and he makes people very afraid. I am tremendously blessed to have people in my life who are understanding of this. Perhaps one day, if I’m lucky, the black dog will permanently disappear. But one never knows with bipolar. It can either last a few years or stay with you over the course of a lifetime. There is no cure for this. But great men, such as Lincoln and as documented in Joshua Wolf Shrenk’s excellent book Lincoln’s Melancholy, did find strength from their despair.

For now, I know the black dog is there. And December seems to be the time when he takes his destructive constitutional.

What I would like to ask of you — as we approach a new year and a new decade and I’ll make the promise as well — is to consider the very real possibility that the person you’re gleefully maligning isn’t the big bad wolf you’ve made him out to be. That he may be actively working on his problems. That he may even be reachable. That responding with hatred may very well perpetuate a vicious cycle that might prevent the person from growing or excelling and that the tragedy of this stifled possibility greatly outweighs your umbrage. That the person is probably more likely to understand his bad conduct if you give him the time and the space. If you show him love.

You can stop an apparent bad apple instantly in his tracks with kindness or a joke. I’ve done it myself many times. Months ago — and this is a story I’ve never told anyone, not even my friends, until now — a man pulled a knife on the 2 line and threatened to cut himself and others. And maybe this was stupid and reckless of me, but I felt overwhelming empathy for him. I started talking with him. And I asked him who he was and what his life was like. And I kept at it. I had somehow entered a zone. A zone of feeling something bigger than myself. A zone of needing to help this man find peace. Because while I have never threatened anyone with a knife, I saw the pain in his eyes and heard the tremble in his voice. And I told the other passengers that I had this, even though I was flying by the seat of my pants and I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. But I kept at it. And I got him to laugh at my jokes.

That’s all the man needed. Love. Laughter. A sense that he belonged.

And do you know what he did? He put down his knife on a spare subway seat. He apologized. I gave him a hug. I slyly confiscated the knife and kept him distracted and made sure he got off on his stop — still talking with him, still hugging him, still doing everything I could to keep reaching him. And he forgot about the knife. I threw the knife in a trash can on my way home.

I have no idea what happened to this man. I certainly hope he is okay. But I knew he had a black dog like me. I knew it was my moral responsibility to help him understand that he was beautiful. Away from the knife. Away from the tough talk. Away from all the terrible pain he was in.

I have long not been a fan of Christmas because love and empathy is selectively applied. Friends have suggested that I can figure out a way to take back the holiday. So I’m doing that right now.

My name is Edward Champion. I write and make audio drama. Despite my flaws, I’m a pretty fun and good guy, but I also suffer from bipolar disorder. It’s bitten me in the ass a number of times. I hope that you can find it within your hearts to forgive me for my black dog, but I fully understand if you can’t. I also hope that, as you approach the holiday season, you can also understand that three million Americans — and that number merely represents the ones who have been diagnosed, not the untold number of people who are suffering right now and who may not be in the position of being able to afford treatment and who are feeling shame about their mental health — are in the same boat as I am. I hope that you can extend empathy and understanding to this considerable cluster of Americans. They are all doing the best that they can. They really don’t want to give into the black dog. But they do need your love. They do need your understanding. They do need your patience. And they need this not just during Christmas, but throughout the entire year.

For my own part, I’m going to resolve to muzzle the black dog faster. I’ve made steady progress, but I still have a long way to go. To anyone who I have ever hurt, my door is open if you need to make amends. If you don’t, that’s fine too. But if you do, please know that I will sincerely extend any and all time to listen with every ounce of earnest patience it takes and to help the two of us reckon with something that never needed to happen. This seems the least I can do.

I wish all of my readers and listeners very happy holidays.

(My considerable gratitude to Rain DeGrey, who said some very kind and necessary words to me which inspired me to own up and find the courage to write this essay. I really needed to write all this years ago. But, hey, better late than never. Peace to everyone.)

How Do You Spend Your Summer Day?

It was ninety degrees in New York and everyone was happy. Vivacious kids shouted at a cheery vendor for cherry ice and the hearty proprietor waved his hand, ushering the kids beneath his canopied shade as he carved out bright granular chunks into pristine cups. A shirtless man with a ratty straw hat angled at a hard random slope strummed a banjo in the park and attracted admirers. Not long before, I ambled past the crackling reports of men slamming dominoes onto the artisanal concrete of fixed outdoor tables sprouting from a brick sidewalk. Even the squirrels were decent enough to leave people alone. It was the kind of summer day where the humidity stops just short of uncomfortable and the sweat feels more like a comforting film and the heat peals a pleasant melody into your pores. And there’s really nothing to complain about at all.

I was walking around Lower Manhattan with a big smile on my face. I had just bought David Lynch’s new book and had read the first few pages and was caught in a very giddy daydream, thinking about some funny characters on a story I’m now working on. That’s when I spotted one of my archenemies, one of the old ones from the literary days. She had once publicly announced that she would throw a fulsome fete if I successfully managed to kill myself (and she had never apologized for it). That couldn’t be her, could it?

The sun was pleasant and the laughs were infectious and my ears picked up the hilarious snippet of a woman describing her hookup from the night before on the phone. And the warm rays kept me giddy. No matter. Not important. Let my archenemy stray away. Now about this barbeque scene! Oh, my actor will love that twist! And if I make that narrative move, oh man, this is going to be so much fun to produce and edit!

And I carried on walking and I looked around and I listened and I marveled and I felt truly blissful. My smile did not wane. How could it? I was still in an incredibly marvelous mood. I’d had a very fun weekend, probably the most fun I’d had all summer, probably among one of the best summer weekends of the last five years if I had to be honest, even if I had not slept much. Wonderful people, everyone friendly, banter with good friends, strange and unreportable adventures. The sight of my archenemy dissipated from my mind completely.

That’s when I looked up and saw my archenemy go way out of her way to cross twenty feet through a thick throng of people, approaching me like a stalker who flouts a restraining order. She was gunning at me with an especially forced and artificial smile. It was the shit-eating grin of someone who wanted to announce that she was a conquerer, but who lacked finesse. I didn’t find her threatening or intimidating in the least. But I did see a sad look in her eyes that her fury could not entirely occlude, the lonely look you often spot in a bully’s adamantine gaze. I still didn’t know if it was really her. And I honestly didn’t care. I mean, I was just happy, truly happy. The hell of it was that she could have spouted off the nastiest invective in the world and I would have (a) probably been very congenial and (b) easily welcomed an opportunity to patch things up.

Finally the moment arrived. What did she say? She said, “Excuse me.” A soft voice. No plan. She didn’t say her name. She didn’t say mine. She didn’t acknowledge what she had done. Or even the many other times she dehumanized me. She didn’t even have the decency to cry “J’accuse!” and declare me the villain. What she probably saw was a very abstracted man lost in his own felicitous reveries, which seemed a damned strange target to impugn and which defied her easy thesis about me. I walked to the right. She then heaved her way there. And we faced each other and I said “Oop!” in the way that Nicholson Baker memorialized in The Mezzanine and we somehow walked past each other. And then I realized that it had been her.

Why had she done this? Well, that question is unimportant. That question is not the right one to dwell on.

What I felt at that moment was not anger, but compassion and pity. One of us was committed to natural connection, to embracing life’s funny knack for resembling a dreamstate. The other saw an enemy she had never had the guts to talk to and zeroed in and went well out of her way to act on a tepid hate. Something about seeing her do this made me realize that only one of us had grown and the other had stagnated. One of us was committed to wonder and positivism. The other was looking for a fight. And when people look for a fight, they are often doing this because they haven’t found the guts to confront their own fears and to stare down hard truths and to finally love the totality of who they are so that they can, in turn, love the totality contained in others.

And that’s the thing about happiness. It is a close cousin to maturity in the way that it sneaks up on you without warning. Months pass and you commit yourself to fully embracing who you are and you suddenly find that you can take more hits on the chin or even forgive someone who had been nothing but nasty and hateful and vituperative to you. And you wonder just who in the hell this new person is. Yet this is a self-examination that’s really not worth going into. The takeaway here isn’t that you’re better when you’re happy, although there is that. It’s that you’re kinder and stronger, kinder and stronger in ways that the unhappy bully never can be. And happiness really is the thing to chase. I really believe that this is the quality that will eventually restore America from its often harrowing fascist trajectory. It may take many years, but we will do it.

As I sauntered into the end of a glorious July afternoon, I knew now that only one of us considered the other an archenemy. I also knew that one of us would enjoy the summer and the other would not. Sometimes it’s just a question of how you decide to spend your summer day.

1.5. Dissociation (The Gray Area)

Greg Sutton, a fidgety young man who is a little too fixated on selling himself, sees his psychiatrist for the first time in months, hoping to find answers about his lost childhood and how to get back the woman he loves. But his own quick fix solution to his problems is not quite what the psychiatrist had in mind. (Running time: 5 minutes)

Written and directed by Edward Champion

Play

CAST:
Greg: Charlie Harrington
Emma: Colette Thomas

Edited by Edward Champion
Foley: Edward Champion
Art: id-iom (CC)

Special thanks to Sacha Arnold, Austin Beach, Jason Boog, Christopher Byrd, Claudia Berenice Garza, Jen Halbert, Gabriella Jiminez, Pete Lutz, John Osborne, Rina Patel, Michael Saldate, Paul Sating, Marc Stein, Georgette Thompson, Jack Ward, and many others I may have inadvertently forgotten for their invaluable help, feedback, kindness, inspiration, and support during the production of this episode.

1. Hello (The Gray Area)

A man wakes up in his apartment with a hazy memory of the night before. He’s greeted in bed by a mysterious woman who keeps saying, “Hello.” But she seems to know far more about his life than he ever could have told her in one night. And as the rats gnaw mercilessly from within the walls, she has a few bold and shocking answers as to why he’s so afraid. (Running time: 22 minutes)

Play

Written and directed by Edward Champion

CAST:
He: Tim Torre
She: Emily Carding
Gordon: Michael Saldate

Edited by Edward Champion
The Gray Area Theme by Alex Khaskin (licensed through NeoSounds)
Foley Sources: Edward Champion and erpe (CC license, slight changes).
Cover Image: Jason Lander (CC)

Special thanks to Sacha Arnold, Austin Beach, Jason Boog, Christopher Byrd, Chris Fletcher, Claudia Berenice Garza, Sarah Golding, Jen Halbert, Gabriella Jiminez, Pete Lutz, John Osborne, Rina Patel, Paul Sating, Marc Stein, Georgette Thompson, and many others I may have inadvertently forgotten for their invaluable help, feedback, kindness, inspiration, and support during the production of this emotionally revealing episode.

On Living with an Inner Demon

This morning, I lost someone I loved. I never got to tell her that I loved her, but I did. She was warm, compassionate, intelligent, honest, courageous, independent-minded: everything you could ever want and more. My friends wanted to meet her. She was a dream that enters reality only a handful of times in your life. Needless to say, she meant everything to me. She was a woman whose life I wanted to make better. And that scared the fuck out of me. Because aside from living a life where close people seem to relish in abandoning me, the last time I loved someone like this, I was left for dead and ended up falling into an abyss of homelessness and joblessness and heartbreak that I crawled up from with a strength and valiance and resilience that I didn’t realize I had in me. Of course, that had been a pit of my own making.

You see, I have a problem. I live with a terrible demon inside me who is very frightening, who has this ability to wrap his scaly tentacles around all of my sterling characteristics and take over. He doesn’t come out as much as he used to, but he’s still there and he wants to destroy every good thing that happens to me and take down a few people if he can. He is a fearsome entity driven by fear who invades my core and tells me that I am not deserving of happiness and he persuades people who love me to stay away for the rest of their natural days. He sprouted during a time in which I experienced unfathomable pain and abuse, where people in my life would tell me that they loved me as they burned me with cigarettes and beat me and molested me. And this demon is so infamous that lies and rumors and conjectures about his existence have pervaded the literary world. Just about everyone in my family has the demon, which is one of many reasons I can’t have relationships with them, but some are not as aware of their demons as I am and, in some disheartening cases, they have not done the very difficult work in attenuating the demon or putting safeguards in place that ensure that the demon’s appearances last seconds rather than days.

I hate the demon with every fiber of my being and he revels in that hate. And even though his appearances in my life are very brief, and have been notably briefer in the last year thanks to work I’ve done and because I have surrounded myself with more positive and more honest people, they are frequent enough to dwarf the substantially wonderful qualities I also have, the character that causes many people to appreciate the sui generis being that I am. But the demon tells me that not a single soul will ever love and care for me. The demon makes people despise me and causes me, at times, to live a very solitary existence.

And now he has come out again and has scared the needless bejesus out of a tremendously kind woman who I let very deeply into my heart, someone who now wants nothing to do with me, someone who I said that I would give space to and then didn’t, someone whose inner peace I betrayed. And I have spent much of the day in tears. Because I didn’t know the demon was waiting in the wings, ready to chew up the scenery, and I couldn’t stop him from hogging the stage. This demon is a deeply evil and inconsiderate beast who is responsible for everything that has gone wrong in my life, yet the hell of it is that he’s also responsible for getting me to many places that I might not otherwise have reached. Just as people are never entirely good or evil, so too are demons.

I have sought considerable help in many forms and varieties against the demon. Many perspicacious professionals and fine minds have tried any number of techniques. The one thing that has worked is positivity. Perhaps it took getting humbled and severely knocked down for me to appreciate everything I have, which I remain grateful for every day, but positivity, whether it comes from me or from others, is not only its own reward, but it has this remarkable power against the demon. For the first time in years, I have lived many months without a single appearance by this scabrous all-consuming villain (although the demon’s more benign cousin, the grumpy commentator, does crop up on Twitter from time to time). And it’s all because I’ve opened myself up more to wonder and curiosity and joy and vivacity. So when I meet other people who have demons, and detect how much they are steered by them and see how little they recognize what is rollicking about inside, I go well out of my way to make them happy. Indeed, giving in many forms and performing secret good deeds and helping people out is what separates those who live with their demons, by which I mean an existence that involves knowing what conditions will keep the demon in check, from those who become totally consumed by them.

Being positive doesn’t mean turning your back on the world’s problems or ignoring social ills or adopting some treacly disposition. (I will, for example, remain staunchly opposed to Love Actually‘s morally contemptible and saccharine vision.) What it means is seeing possibility where others see hopelessness. What it means is working very hard to solve the insolvable, even if you fail and even if you only win back a small scrap of territory. What it means is life’s equivalent to how the marvelous Iris Murdoch once described the very greatest art: invigorating without consoling. Because who needs another “Sorry for your loss” when a loved one kicks the bucket? What everyone needs is the courage to go on, to live as gracefully as possible even as the worst things happen. Laughing through tears, summoning positive memories of people that our demons are telling us to despise on the spot, and being there for people are all effective ways to stub out pernicious fire.

I’m writing about my demon not only because I want to hold myself accountable, but because I want anyone who lives with a demon to know that they can live positively. I want them to know that even though I experienced what still feels like an earth-shattering loss, I’m still summoning some positivity. A friend’s funny cat photos, sent midway through the course of writing this essay, invigorated me greatly, as did another good friend who was gracious enough to meet me for lunch on last minute’s notice, where we had an honest and positive and far from humorless chat about this tricky dilemma of living with qualities that tear us down. It is this positivity, not unlike the joy that often flies high in the face of disaster, the “emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive” that Rebecca Solnit documented in her excellent book A Paradise Built in Hell, that flenses the sebeaceous muck from our souls and returns us to that essential duty of living. You can never entirely conquer your demons, but with positivity you can live with them.

Some Ruminations on Modern Romance

Sometimes it takes only two words, uttered by someone very kind at the right place at the right time, to keep you soaring for days. There is nothing wrong with giving or receiving affection or coveting a loose ledger that is never in need of an audit. It is the gamble we all take as we stumble upon the fine intuitive glue that keeps the heart pumping in a ferociously stable place and that fills the spirit with newfound signposts to paths uncharted and untried. There is always the risk of heartbreak, but it is overshadowed by salacious quips and dancing eyes and exchanged smiles, the discovery of bright lively flora blossoming inside another soul, the enchanting unknowingness of it all.

Once the poker faces of our best selves dissolve over a few glasses of malbec, we learn of forgotten cards buried up our sleeves. The stagecraft is intuitive and vaguely mystical, transcending optical illusion, undetectable by the smartest Broadway crowd. A good pair of magicians understands that they can bring down any house through a shared glance or a sotto voce declaration or the slightest brush of fingers on a windy stage. Good living theater is all about the magic that arrives out of nowhere when no one, not even the featured players, is looking.

In recent years, we’ve abandoned our late night telephone conversations for flirty evocative texts that careen across the 4G matrix well past the midnight hour, circumventing the long established rule of never calling another after ten. But maybe we confine our expressions to words because we crave shared physicality more than ever before, perhaps because it is more easily consummated than at any other time in human history. The phones are parked in our pockets and our purses in the early stages of whatever counts for current courtship, intimating that we are occupying some private shared territory that will never be intruded upon. Dating, like show business, is all about showing up.

We sometimes succumb to cliches, but we can still be surprised by someone else even when we are exhausted. This is the magic and the fluidity of romance. The jittery excitement of meeting someone new or deepening something that seems to be tottering happily along a thrilling edge can turn a seemingly collected and rational mind into a visceral thunderball, prone to wild whims and daring moves that were never staked out on the syllabus.

It becomes easier to listen and glisten and kiss and even miss out. It becomes easier to be courteous even when the date is disastrous. It becomes easier to be honest about whatever it is you truly want. The only requirements for enjoying yourself amid a series of pleasures and mishaps are curiosity and a zest for life. And when someone emerges from the ever rotating throng who is gentle with your ventricles and willing to accept your totality, it can shoot you across the moon in ways that no cosmonaut can mimic.

It will never go the same way. This is the first thing you learn. You are more of a catch than you know. This is the second thing you learn. But there are more important lessons following these obvious revelations.

We learn of our resilience. We learn how many chances we give to other souls. We learn, even the skeptics and the bitter cynics among us, that we allow more idealism in our lives than we are willing to acknowledge. We even learn somehow to be comfortably alone during the breaks. There are patterns, but there are also deviations.

It does not matter how many there are. Equations are meaningless in this journey. There is no need to scribble gibberish upon the theoretical chalkboard of your mind. Some grand soul will emerge, even if for a brief time, if you have the courage and fortitude to go the distance.

Love Transformer

Love and Sex with Robots
David Levy
HarperCollins, 334 pages, $24.95

Review by Erin O’Brien

Let’s start with the RealDolls.

Actually, it’s not the dolls I want to dwell on, but the men who own them. I spent untold hours conversing on an online forum set up specifically for sex doll owners while researching this article. The human aspect of the sex doll fetish/hobby has stuck with me ever since that piece ran almost a year ago. The love doll phenomenon might seem banal at first blush, but I found it to be complex and surprising at every turn.

Sex is the most popular doll activity, but owners also dress the dolls, talk to them, kiss them, and purchase lingerie and perfume for them. They pose and photograph the dolls. They name them and often imbue them with fantasy personalities. Some men even present themselves on The Doll Forum as their doll. As I struggled to understand it all, one of the forum members asked me if I love my car. That stopped me. My Mini Cooper is compact and responsive and never takes more than it needs. I want to emulate it at every turn. Do I love it? I practically deify it. And it’s not the only object that is more to me than the sum of its parts. My iPod is not only a jewel, but also a valued companion on my endless walks. I am free to enjoy those affairs without fear of persecution, but the rules are different for men who enjoy love dolls. Most owners are terrified of being outed.

Doll owners constantly discuss advances in doll technology. They want convenience features such as removable sex organs that can be easily cleaned but stay put during critical moments. They want their dolls to talk and move. They pine for fully functional “gynoids” that they can be programmed to accommodate any sexual proclivity. Forum discussions wax and wane with excitement and disappointment, depending upon how close technology is to making their dreams come true. While on the forum, doll owners evoked my sympathy, empathy and antipathy — as well as my fascination. So when I heard about David Levy’s book Love and Sex with Robots, it piqued my interest.

“Accepting that huge technological advances will be achieved by around 2050,” claims Levy in the book’s introduction, ” … Love and sex with robots on a grand scale is inevitable.”

From day one, my world was filled with technology. My father designed and built machinery. My degree is in electrical engineering. I respect milling machines, I remember the Radio Shack TRS-80 computer, and I consider my laptop to be an attractive accessory that complements who I am. I agreed with Levy’s assertions about our advances in AI and computer technology. And yes, the human fascination with automata is boundless. It starts early too. Every kid is transfixed by a window display of animated Christmas elves no matter how repetitive and mechanical their movement. I know I was. I still am.

From this starting point and through three hundred odd pages of text, Levy’s premise could surely convince me to fall in love — and maybe even marry — a robot.

I’m just a love machine

Early in the book, Levy says he will not detail the mechanics behind the robot frontier. This immediately felt like a cheat to me and put a big chink in Levy’s credibility. The emulation of the human hand, lips, and tongue seem like important components to address when pondering lovebot technology. Yet Levy does not address such issues. No matter how hard I tried, the cunning engineer in me couldn’t stop worrying about design. A lovebot will require a heating system. (RealDoll owners often use an electric blanket.) Will the user manually lubricate the robot for sex or will it have a system with refillable reservoirs? Something along the lines of windshield washer fluid? That robot kid in AI got bested by a mouthful of spinach, but he did fine even after he fell in a pool. This is more than I can say about my cell phone. I eat a falafel sandwich to stay powered up. What will fuel a lovebot? How long will the rechargeable battery last? Coitus interruptus because of a drained battery would be a real drag. Sort of like having to put your cool road trip on hold for a few hours in Shamrock, Texas while the electric car juices up.

These mystifying “huge technological advances” didn’t sit well with the Los Angeles Times‘s Seth Lloyd either.

Lloyd brought his own credentials (quantum-mechanical engineering professor at MIT) to the intrinsic problems of programming computerized robots to perform even the humblest of tasks. He calls Levy on forecasting developments so far in the future that no one can refute them, calling such extrapolation a “mug’s game.” And make sure you dig his comments on Levy’s lack of literary references. Remember Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation? We thought R2D2 was adorable. And everyone drooled over Cherry 2000. Levy doesn’t mention any of them. Not even Jude Law’s silken Gigolo Joe, who would seem to embody Levy’s vision.

Levy also forecasts that lovebots will cost the equivalent of two C-notes by the middle of the century. Right now, $199 will buy you an iRobot Roomba Robot Vacuum at Target, but the only thing it sucks is dust bunnies and pet hair. Sure, the Roomba may go down in price. Electronics generally do. Mechanical devices do not. Build them cheap and, well, is anybody out there still driving a Yugo?

You make me feel like a natural woman

From Sex and Love with Robots:

Anyone who has doubts that women will find it appealing or even possible to receive the most incredible, amazing, fantastic orgasms, courtesy of sexual robots, should think again. Think vibrators.

Did someone say vibrator?

The Cone Vibrator boasts 16 settings courtesy of a 3,000-rpm motor and is fueled by three C-sized batteries. The smooth medical-grade silicone surface is easy to clean and comfortable to (ahem) interact with. And believe me, set this baby in the center of the bed and it stays put no matter how enthusiastic that interaction gets. It costs about a hundred bucks.

Purrr.

I love my ridiculous toys. But the idea of a life-sized male sex doll does nothing for me. Sure, a toy delivers satisfaction. But it is just a toy. It has nothing to do with men or lovemaking. (Well, maybe as an accessory. I mean, insinuate yourself on the cone and your entire upper body is free to … um … oh, never mind.)

Why? It has to do with the essence of our subtle physiological yin and yang: that swirling vortex wherein you find the quest for a woman’s climax, fear of impotence, a lover’s thrill at the sight of a swelling erection on a man he or she wishes to arouse and the sense of failure a flaccid member evokes in the same situation. The lie of a woman’s faked orgasm and the intensity of pleasure between two people exchanging undiluted desire.

That said, the vagina has more wiggle room than the penis. Erica Jong called the fairer genitalia an “all-weather” organ, suitable for use anytime as long as a bottle of lubricant is in arm’s reach. The passive nature of the vagina makes it easier for a heterosexual man to suspend disbelief and engage in activities such as prostitution and doll play. Not so with the penis. The Viagra discussion notwithstanding, arousal must produce a man’s erection, which silently proclaims, you are sexy and desirable to me. It is an honest organic response, not the proper execution of computer programming. An erection imparts affirmation that a phallus will never evoke.

As a heterosexual woman, I don’t think I’m alone in my indifference to the male sex robots of the future or the male dolls of today, but I’m not sure. Although Abyss, the manufacturer of RealDoll, sent me droves of info when I asked about their product, they didn’t respond to my numerous queries about how many “Charlie” male dolls they’ve sold. I’ve read that it’s only about a dozen.

Levy is completely at odds with this topic. In one sentence he proclaims that vibrator love means robot love. In the next breath, he admits that, unlike men, women do not buy love dolls.

Why not? Although breadwinning men with gleaming teeth and pompadours stiff with Brylcreem can have their RealDolls and eat them too, the cake of Levy’s argument asserts that women probably just can’t afford “Charlie” at $7,000. He admits that this probably isn’t the only reason, but it’s the only one he cites.

An angry red blush bloomed on my neck as I digested this factoid, but I must agree: $7,000 is a lot of money to pay for the privilege of lying beneath 100 pounds of inert silicone.

I suppose I could sit on top of it.

Nah.

They’ll never get that perfect spot where shaft meets torso right. Besides that, Charlie wouldn’t fit in the box under my bed.

Even the losers

Levy is a savvy proselytizer. He appeared on the January 17 episode of The Colbert Report. When asked why people would want a lovebot, he said, “The most common reason I think at the beginning will be that there are millions of people out there in the world who for one reason or another can’t establish normal relationships with humans. They’re lonely, they’re miserable and robots, when they’re sophisticated enough, will be an excellent alternative.” When Colbert asked him if he would ever have interest in a robot, Levy responded, “No … this is for the other people.”

Okay folks, queue forms on the right. You lonely miserables–raise your hands. You guys head straight up front. The ugly guys are next. No, no. No need for you dogheads to raise your hands. We can see who you are. Just get behind the miserables. When all the pathetic losers are settled, the rest of you normal, middle-class, right-as-rain Other People have at it. As soon as I blow the whistle, let the stampede begin.

When a writer distances himself from his topic, he risks insulting his material as well as his reader. This is particularly relevant when writing about sex. If you don’t put yourself on the playing field either directly or indirectly, you come across as judgmental. To get on that field, you must put forth your assertions in the context of your reader and yourself. That is vulnerable territory–upon which Levy dares not to tread. Instead he relies heavily on studies and history in order to broach his topic. His research is thorough and interesting. Unfortunately, too often it looks backward and not forward. Catastrophically, it never looks inward.

Levy cites our pets, our Internet romances and our ongoing love affair with electronic equipment as examples of alternative human affections. So because I love my cats, I’ll marry a machine? And, yes, I have a complex relationship with my computer, but it serves mostly as a tool and a vital connection to other people. That argument led me nowhere. It’s true that people have online affairs, but in the end, it’s still something conducted in the flesh between two people.

This was the absolute scientific fact that proves humans will soon universally love and marry robots? I was still miles away.

A humanoid robot that is programmed to perform its owner’s specific wishes sounded like a new-fangled way to say hooker, trophy wife, or sex slave. The more sophisticated the electronic entity, the more cruel the electronic leash. I couldn’t see it any other way.

What I needed was a deep thought.

But it’s all in the game

Levy is an international chess champion and the author of dozens of books on artificial intelligence and computer gaming. His passion for his subject is evidenced by a long list of international credentials concerning those topics. He led a team to win the 1997 Loebner Prize (world championship for conversational computer software) and is currently the president of the International Computer Games Association. In 1968, Levi wagered that no computer would beat him at chess within the next ten years. He won that bet against his fellow AI aficionados, which garnered him considerable notability. Eleven years later, however, he was defeated by the computer program “Deep Thought,” which leads me to the heart of the trouble with Love and Sex with Robots.

This book is a commercialized version of Levy’s academic paper on the topic, for which he earned a Ph.D. The resulting scientific detachment about subjects that are not scientific–love and sex–is problematic. Although Levy’s passages about the histories of vibrators and sexdolls are wonderful, you won’t find one candid breath about the human beings behind them.

Love and Sex with Robots is screaming for eye-blinking moments such as an anecdote that a doll owner conveyed to me: he loved painting portraits but no model was patient enough for him. “A life-like doll seemed the ideal solution,” he said. “However, when she arrived, I was so taken with her realism that I automatically became fond of her.” And in an instant, this would-be Pygmalion instilled gentle poetry upon the idea of man and doll, which no longer seemed so strange.

That is how a writer must normalize a sexual subculture, by evoking the reader’s empathy over his sympathy. Exclude the anecdotal details and the droning research ends up sounding like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon.

Levy didn’t have to go very far to find a humanizing facet for his subject. All he had to do was step from behind the scientific mask for a moment and describe his lifelong fascination with AI. I smoldered with curiosity about the tipping-point moment when he knew “Deep Thought” had the game in 1989. How did he feel? I imagine it was a thrilling culmination of anger, hatred, respect, frustration, admiration and humility–a stinging slap from a beautiful woman. Perhaps it was arousing as well as infuriating. Such disclosure would have increased the power of this book ten-fold.

But the future lovebots Levy depicts are no Deep Thought femme fatales. They are submissive Stepford Wives for the masses, programmed to meet their owner’s every whim. When I juxtaposed McRobot against the brilliant Deep Thought entity that defeated a genius, it amounted to a subcontextual insult. How would Levy respond if asked to check off the box on the order form that indicated whether he’d like his custom-built robot to let him win at chess (a) always, (b) once in a while, or (c) never?

Perhaps such pedestrian options are for the “other people.”

Electric slide

Levy devotes 27 pages to “Why people pay for sex” whereby he quietly admits that buying a mechanical companion is akin to prostitution. To his credit, there is no hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold or Pretty Woman moment. The section about why women pay for sex is one of the weakest in the book. A tidbit involving ten female johns that Levy cites from a February 1994 article of Marie Claire (UK) does little to normalize the idea of paying a man to share a bed. The johns discuss their lack of success with men, the freedom from complications and constraints that inundates relationships, and the need for companionship they cannot fulfill otherwise. He concludes the chapter by saying paid sex “can be a positive experience even though [the johns] know that their sex object has no genuine feelings of affection for them.”

I wanted to make sense of all this. So I reviewed AI while writing this essay. I watched Gigolo Joe’s love scene again and again. Who is this scene for? The woman is a teary middle-aged cliché. People with complex sexual troubles surely do not see themselves this way. They don’t need pity; they need a solution. It’s not Gigolo Joe, who is more contrived than his human counterpart. Paying for sex doesn’t make sense to most women, which is why the call for heterosexual male prostitutes is a barely audible peep. Gigolo Joe’s mechanical hard-on is a lie as well.

I detest the isn’t-it-wonderful-that-these-sad-people-have-this-option-available-to-them shtick, but that’s all Levy offers me here. Again, I needed a quotidian inroads, such as the heterosexual fiftysomething man in a strapless evening gown I discovered when conducting research for a feature on cross-dressing. “Glenda” told me that, when she leaves Glen’s rough work clothes behind and steps out in pantyhose and heels, the world treats her differently — even if she’s not all that convincing in her role. Glenda can also leave Glen’s troubles behind, such as the grief surrounding his 19-year-old daughter’s suicide.

Oh.

But at one point, Levy finally grabbed me. He chronicles the efforts of the Erotic Computation Group at MIT, which endeavors to explore modern computing, human sexuality and sex toys of the future. I sat up in attention, only to read the next paragraph, wherein Levy reveals that the group was a hoax, and was gravely disappointed.

Love and Sex with Robots represents a massive amount of work. But it fails to reveal a profound truth — something I believe is still waiting to be uncovered. I wish Levy had included some of his own secrets and desires. I wish he had gotten his hands dirty and talked to real people about real sex and fetishes. But the galvanizing details and their inherent vulnerability just aren’t here. As it is, Love and Sex with Robots feels like a date with a machine.