Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Time I Faced Death, and How It Saved My Life

I had a near-death experience at twenty-one.

Some people know this. Others know I got sick, but never understood the severity of the incident or its impact on me. And who can blame them? Most of my doctors didn’t understand what was going on at that time, and there isn’t any way of telling how someone is going to react to that sort of an experience.

I suspect some people, though perhaps not many, are capable of shrugging off a “minor” brush with death. For me, I’ve only recently been able to say that I’ve gotten past it. I can talk about it now, here or there. It took over seven years to get to this point, but at least I am here.

I reacted, initially, when the ordeal first ended, by avoiding my feelings. Defying them. At the time, it was the only thing I could do. People tried to help me and I said I was fine. I pressed forward. For a while this behavior helped. But sooner or later, every trauma demands its day of reckoning.

I’ve started this particular post, about this particular subject, about ten times over the past several months. I could never finish it. Today, I can. I want to finish it. I want to share what I’ve learned, over the past several years, after such a life-changing experience. I think it’s the next step in my healing process.

The details are simple and obscure. I caught a virus while traveling abroad (in Europe). It began its assault on my body near the tail-end of the trip, which had been a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, up to that point.

The symptoms began when I was making my way slowly back to New York. They were comparatively tame at first, and isolated to one bodily system. I was supposed to spend a few days in Paris before my return. After spending all but an afternoon’s worth of that time sick in a friend’s cousin’s apartment, I made the flight back to my place in the city and then I didn’t get better.

I got much worse. An initial trip to the emergency room didn’t trigger any alarms. They gave me an IV for dehydration (my symptoms had been purely gastrointestinal  until then) and sent me home. A day later I all-but-collapsed trying to make it up a flight of six steps.

The virus attacked everything. Everything. I had almost collapsed because it had made its way into my heart, which was sustaining damage. You never expect, at twenty-one, to be able to cut the line at the emergency room because of that sign that says: “If you are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain come to the nurse’s window immediately.” But this can now be counted among my life’s achievements.

I don’t want to talk too much more about the rest of the experience. It was horrible. The doctors (I had a small army of them) were never able to isolate or identify the virus. The main battle lasted about two weeks. They were able to monitor me and give my body what it was lacking while I couldn’t eat or get out of bed. They helped me fight a dangerous fever. But, for all purposes, despite every attempt on the part of the hospital staff to find some way of identifying a treatment, it was me against the virus.

I don’t even know if, despite the severity of the episode, I was ever truly in danger of dying. I do know it was serious for the first few days. I did get the sense that, if my body wasn’t up to the fight, that there weren’t too many other options.

But my body was up to the fight. I was young, and relatively healthy. Despite the quiet horror of the experience – you don’t expect to be admitted to the cardiac ICU at twenty-one– I won.

This is something I can feel good about, now. The fallout of those weeks, though, lasted years. In some ways, perhaps, it may never end.

It is not a minor thing, to have to face the real possibility of your own death at an age when most men and women are still capable of holding onto the dear, childish illusion – that we are invincible. Neither is it an easy experience to handle, after the fact, when you’re someone who is used to charging through life with definitive reasons for needing that illusion.

Before the experience, I was an anxious person. I struggled, internally, with demons of an at-that-time indeterminate origin. Once I was out of the hospital, once I rested and got better – everything got worse.

I had a year left of college to complete at the time. Several people advised me to take a semester off. I refused. I couldn’t do that. I was too scared. Having glimpsed death, I couldn’t do anything, in the wake of that experience, but grip life more firmly than before. For better or worse, my reaction was a mix of healthy and unhealthy. People reached out to me, but no one got through to me. I was very convincing, when repeating the refrain that I was “okay”.

There was a moment, when I was first admitted to the hospital, before anyone knew the extent of the damage my heart had sustained, when I was alone in my room. Everything had happened quickly up until that point. The fraternity brother who had taken me to the hospital (while we’re here, don’t judge fraternities, my brothers helped save my life) wasn’t allowed up to my room. They had already taken about as much blood as they could take, so that a battery of tests could be run on it. A legion of specialists would soon be on their way. But, for the moment, I had no roommate. It was my first opportunity to process what was happening, alone, for myself.

This is very hard for me to admit, and it took me a very long time to come to terms with what happened next, but I feel it’s important to be honest about this. Regardless of factual accuracy, I felt a very real sense at that moment that it could all be over.

And I was relieved.

I have learned, since, that my reaction was not necessarily abnormal. For a long time, before that, I feared that it meant that, pre-virus, I was already broken beyond repair. I didn’t understand how I could feel relief in the face of prospective death.

We are conditioned to believe that we should always want to live, and that if we don’t, something is wrong. This is, obviously, as it should be. But at that moment, at least, the simplicity of my position – of finding myself suddenly balancing exactly over the fulcrum between life and death, with nothing else existing between – it appealed to me.

Now, after years of therapy, I have a better understanding of what happened that day. I know that my reaction was not about how little or how much I valued my life. I had been relieved, but not because I didn’t want to live. Life, as we all know, is rarely simple, and frequently difficult. For everyone.

Again, this took a very long time to completely sink in (and I am still in the process of implementing and applying what I have learned), but I think that what I really needed at that time was to put an end to how I had been living.

In this way, facing death saved my life. In this way, I became fortunate. Despite all reasons to believe the contrary, my experience was not only negative. It hasn’t been an easy path or a natural one, but what happened to me at that time in my life, and in the years since, did allow me, at a young age, to jump to a new set of tracks. Even if I didn’t know it was happening.

I have always had a few demons in me. They came with me, to the new set of tracks. That, unfortunately, is the way this sort of thing works, for those of us who have to deal with such a reality.

But my physical victory over a deadly threat to my life graced me with the opportunity to begin appreciating and valuing that life in all other arenas. That which used to be a struggle for me (against my self), in all other terms, slowly became a war (for myself).

I’ll repeat it again. It took years. It did not go smoothly and I did not make all the right decisions in getting to this point. But the fact remains that I faced the void. The fact remains that, having glimpsed it, and despite many wrong turns and many low periods, I eventually stopped staring at it and turned back to face life.

And I want to tell you why I was able to do that.

Something else happened when I was alone in that hospital room. Something else happened after I was left there wondering why I wasn’t scared to die.

Once that moment passed, I realized that I had to call my parents. Which I did.

I told them that I was in the hospital, that there was something wrong with my heart, and that the doctor’s didn’t know anything else. They got the name of the hospital, said they were on their way, and they hung up.

And then I cried. Quietly, and privately. Because I was scared and I didn’t want to die.

I needed to share this story for that reason. I want it to be clear, why I do what I do. Why I am here, on this site, and out there, struggling for my films.

My connections to life, my family and my friends, proved to me that there was value to my existence, even at a time when I couldn’t find that value for myself. This is the truth that love brings to our lives. This is why, for me, love is life. It is the only thing that can combat death. On any scale. In whatever terms.

While that all sounds tidy, in retrospect, the fact remains that I’ve spent much of my interior and private life, over the past seven years, fighting my fear of that initial reaction – that first feeling of apathy in the face of death. At the same time, out of a very real fear of the sheer power of love as death’s opposite, I don’t know that I’ve ever fully embraced the idea that it too, is something that, at the end of the day, requires some sort of abandonment-of-the-self in order to thrive. This is a perhaps common philosophical comparison that thinkers and poets have struggled with and attempted to define for a long time. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that our relationship with that comparison must become personal in order for us to begin to at least respect its mystery.

This is understandable. Love, like life, is a weighty proposition. As a young man, I was of that typical poetic sort who was in love with the idea of love. I am no longer afflicted with that temporary, imperfect, half-realized definition of the word.

For me, at least, for now, life and love is about releasing my hold on fear. Not fear’s hold on me. My hold on fear.

I repeat: what I’ve learned about demons, through all this, is that they don’t die. They don’t go away. They can’t be vanquished and they can’t be ignored. If they exist for you, they are permanent. Perhaps our demons are even a naturally occurring part of the human condition. It would make sense, but I won’t speak for everyone.

So what, specifically, changed? What did I do, to come around in the way that I have, after everything I went through?

How did I begin opposing my fears – of death, love, life – insofar as anything like this can be done?

Slowly and methodically, I went after the demons. I sourced them out, I learned what sustained them, and I cut off their supply. I began working to strengthen that version of myself who hadn’t been up to the fight, so many years ago. I began trusting the at-that-time mysterious part of myself that helped pull me through. I started to trust the people in my life who deserved that trust, and began distancing myself from those who could not be trusted. If my demons won’t ever die, at least I can see to it that they are starved, powerless pathetic creatures.

It’s been a long and difficult journey to get to this point, but I think I was finally able to finish this post because now I truly believe it – I’m okay.

Recap: Sundance ShortsLab 2013 at BAM

While the event itself took place last weekend, I wanted to take some time this week to recap the great experience I had at the Sundance ShortsLab at BAM in Brooklyn.

Some of you may have seen me tweeting about it here and there while the lab was proceeding. I had planned to do more of that but ended up just listening. It seemed counter-intuitive to obsess over pulling quotes (though there were plenty to pull) and risk looking the next great piece of information coming from the programmers and industry panelists.

And that’s really what I want to talk about, in case any of you out there might be interested in attending either the LA session of the ShortsLab on August 10th, or another session, wherever, next year. The Lab, more than anything else, provided me and others with a glut of very useful information. And a bit more of something else, that is arguably even more crucial in the long struggle to make it as an indie filmmaker.

I’m going to be up front about this – when I heard Sundance was going to be in my backyard in Brooklyn, I was interested but unsure as to whether the Lab itself was going to be for me. The reason was simple, if flimsy. I’ve made, or helped to make, four shorts (technically three, since Multiverse is still in post) and have produced countless other short form projects that aren’t quite the same thing and yet not completely different either. The entrance fee seemed reasonable, insofar as any monetary amount can seem reasonable to an indie filmmaker, but I (like a few others, probably) still didn’t just have the money laying around.

I’m so glad I went anyway.

First, it was a little arrogant of me (and I’ll briefly continue the pattern of self-absorption by patting myself on the back for knowing I was wrong) to assume that years of making shorts qualified me to say that I didn’t need Sundance. That’s not exactly what was happening – I just didn’t want to waste money that could go towards plugging other holes – but at the end of the day a decision not to attend might as well have been based on this fallacy. As it turned out, it would have been a mistake to pass up on the opportunity.

Enter reason number one why any filmmaker, who hasn’t already made his or her first feature (and this may even still apply to a few who have – I’ve made half a feature), should attend the ShortsLab in the future. The program wasn’t just money well-spent. It was money incredibly well-spent. Further, it wasn’t even about money or time. Not fundamentally.

It’s easy to forget, when we are always struggling for funds, for opportunities – when we are simply always struggling – that there is a reason for the struggle. That there is passion beneath this compulsion towards “success” that becomes a leech on the remainder of our lives.

More than any other film-related event I can remember attending (though my festival attendance to this point has been limited), the ShortsLab felt abuzz with a genuine passion for the medium of film and a distinct and pure hunger for information and access.

A lot of the time, you walk into an “industry event” – any industry event, really – and the experience is a mix of opportunism and genuine interest. This is, of course, understandable. However, invariably, even in the arena of the arts, programmers and crowds seem to lose sight of the natural order of these two factors. To be clearer: more people are there, more specifically, to get what they need and that only. The urgency of, and the desire for, the “prize”…it overcomes and outstrips the reason for the journey.

Quite simply: the Sundance Shorts Lab programmers put the more appropriate and more crucial reverse relationship into practice – from the start. Passion for art first, business of film second. The day started, smartly, with an hour of Q&A, which allowed Sundance to dispense with the anxious “need to know” on the part of the crowd  — which can be boiled down to: how do I get my film into the festival. Then they got to the important stuff.

What was the important stuff?

While I am tempted to go into further detail on what I believe was an expertly planned and executed program (especially considering it took place over one long day), the crux of it is this: we were there to learn. To absorb the information that the festival, mostly via its invited industry guests, was delivering.

After the initial talk about the ins and outs of the shorts program itself, the majority of the rest of the day was about an opportunity to discuss the ins and outs of getting films made and made well, and positioning yourself for future (artistic and career) success. This information came from people who knew what they were talking about, and were actively interested in “paying it forward”. Which is what made it the right decision for me to go.

I learned quite a bit. I did come out of the day feeling good about how Multiverse is going. I also feel, after talking with some of the panelists, that I am on the right track with Sophia. These were admittedly priority hopes of mine for the day. But, more than anything else, I gained valuable insight into the professional process that I have not always been able to gain working on my own and teaching myself.

A few films does not an expert make. I’ve known this for a few years. Still, I wanted to provide a record of this mistake so that others might realize it as well. The ShortsLab was about shorts, yes. But it also took a long-view about filmmaking and a career in independent film. Maybe that seems an obvious natural progression out of the arena of shorts – few filmmakers make shorts with the idea of doing it perpetually – but, in my naiveté, I wasn’t completely expecting to get quite as much out of the experience as I did.

Sometimes I worry that, for an increasing number of us, who are stubborn, who are afraid, who are sensitive, who are limited and intimidated by a lack of resources and time – I worry that the struggle to learn to make films, and to excel at making them, forces us to retreat into ourselves. We condition ourselves (with a great degree of help from an increasingly callous world) to believe that the pursuit of our passion must be an impossible and solitary endeavor.

A single day on set, when it comes around to production time, always lays waste to this flimsy belief, perhaps.

But what of the intervening time and space?

At the end of the day, we are all artists – if we are at all doing it right. I don’t care what you do, what you want to do, what you are forced to do. We as humans are fundamentally creative beings. We create as a compulsion of our condition, regardless of whether we do this towards a positive end or with awareness.

And specific to those of us who pursue a more directly artistic calling – we live largely in our minds, a fact that can be a danger as much as it is an inherent necessity as we go about pursuing our particular compulsion in our medium of choice.

But film – film in particular – is about community. We, as filmmakers, cannot succeed without our mentors, our peers, and most importantly our supporters and audience. This is part of the mysterious bargain of art.

What impressed me most about the Shorts Lab was my sense that everyone there, from the programmers and the guest panelists to the majority of the audience, was there to celebrate the creation of film.

Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising. I understand that Sundance, being Sundance, can afford to maintain a hold on this more correctly ordered dichotomy between art and careerism more easily than most. But in my experience in this industry so far, more people are more interested in credit and careerism and attention than the purity of film narrative. Perhaps this is a result of our over-capitalized society. Probably it’s more complicated than that (though perhaps not much more complicated). Either way, it’s refreshing to see an organization with the recognition and the power to keep things ordered as they should be, exert their influence in support of storytelling first, in an arena (short films) where the overwhelming majority of us get our start.

I’ve been working hard, perhaps too hard, to simply “learn the ropes” – for a very long time. Again, my festival experience as an attendee has been limited. I also didn’t go to film school. Honestly, this has mostly been because of a dearth of time and resources. When you are truly fighting the fight, few opportunities arrive, in the current economic climate, to put yourself physically in the same place as “the business”. I can’t go out to Sundance. I’m too broke and too busy making films. But I could spend a Sunday in Brooklyn doing the next best thing.

What I’m trying to say is that I was grateful to have an opportunity, despite these facts, to get together with like-minded people, to learn, and to feel at least in some small way that I was where I belonged.

Other filmmakers in a similar position as me, in any of the above terms, would do well to attend a session in the future.

The Reparative Imperative

The following post was written last week, in a relaxed daze, while The Furious Romantic was on a much-needed vacation.

I’m sitting in a handmade wooden chair on the open, covered front porch of a rental cabin in the woods of Vermont. It’s been raining a lot – legitimate thunderstorms on and off for days – but right now the sun is sinking behind the trees and the air has begun to cool.

It’s been muggy. Sticky. The salt shaker in the kitchen stopped working yesterday. The moisture has been getting into everything. But the cabin is well-designed. Overall it’s been just breezy enough that, with all the windows open, we haven’t been uncomfortable. We have had less salt.

The rain hasn’t bothered me much. All I’ve wanted out of this trip was a break, some quality time with my wife, and…the mountains.

Just that. This. The sight of them in the distance. The knowledge of their looming, permanent presence. The clean air.

And the forest night, dark and still and yet filled with so much mysterious  movement – and interrupted, on occasion, by the blink of a firefly, if the rain has held off long enough. I love it all.

The city had ground me down. Worse than I realized.

I knew I was tired. I knew I needed rest, an opportunity to relax, unwind, regroup.

I didn’t know I needed healing.

Do we ever?

Do we — when it comes to the most elusive form of healing we know (on average)? What does a modern man or woman do, when our soul is afflicted? When we have suffered loss, or pain, or when we have borrowed too liberally from reserves whose nature and abundance we don’t fully comprehend? Absent any true, real belief in religious prayer – and I realize that for some people, prayer does in fact work – how and when do we acknowledge the need for spiritual assistance and health?

It is easy to make the mistake, when you are an artist leading a double life – or anyone leading a double life – of assuming that your passion and your spirit are one in the same, just because each can be made to fuel the other.

I’m realizing, now, that they’re not the same. I’ve thought of my work over the past few days, idly here and there. I’ve allowed my mind to wander a bit, to think about Sophia, about all of you, about my hopes and dreams for my future as a filmmaker and a storyteller. But, more than that, I’ve rejected all thought.

I’ve been on vacation for days, and last night was the first night since I’ve been here that I didn’t have nightmares, didn’t wake up hours before dawn to a mind racing through some amorphous anxiety or another.

It must have been a shock to my system, to suddenly abandon the driving rush of the past several months, starting with the development of Multiverse and on through to the most recent stages of work on Sophia. Insomnia hasn’t been a recurring issue for me for on any level for years – mostly because I’m so exhausted all the time that I just pass out most nights. It’s been strange, reencountering the witching hours, after so much time away. I didn’t miss them much. I missed them a little, to be honest, but not much.

I used to think the night held secrets, power. I used to thrive on the night, on its silence and its mystery. But, while the dark still holds a place in my heart, while the beauty of the forest night and even that of the city remains attractive and special to me – right now I am more interested in the sleep. The rest.  The reparative imperative, to get my spirit back into fighting shape, reigns supreme.

It’s going well. Regardless of weather, the mountains will bring peace to the body and the senses if you let them. The mind, given time, will reset itself.

How have I been healing my spirit? I’m here with the woman I love. I’m sharing my restorative experience with another. We are engaging in repair together.

I encourage all readers to make sure, at crucial moments, to do the same. It doesn’t have to be the mountains. It doesn’t have to be a lover. Just…don’t forget to take time for yourself. Listen to your soul as you would your body when it is more obviously afflicted.

Love, and allow yourself to be loved, even if you’re a fighter — even if it’s hard, sometimes, for you to feel love.

Love’s the reason we fight in the first place.