Diagonal Exile

A Glimpse of the Sound, from The New York Public Library

As I approach seventeen years since I moved to Seattle from my home state of New York, as more and more of my memories melt down or vaporize, and as the world becomes a more and more streamlined doomsday machine, it feels like a ripe time to pause for some inventory. The century is a teenager and will technically become an adult on New Years Day. I, born on the second day of 1979, will be thirty-nine the following day, old enough to be its parent. Throughout this summer I have been peppered with requests from former high school classmates for information regarding our twentieth reunion. With half-feigned irritability I reminded each one of them that, although I spearheaded the campaign (“Simple mind, complicated shoes”), I had only been the class Vice President. I was simply the one they remembered from all the outlandish speeches. A jerky deflection probably stemming from an irrational fear of not having lived up to my classmates’ perceived expectations.

It’s been ten years since my final record with my music project of yesteryear and ten years since I moved into this big old house notched into the steep cobblestone streets of Northeast Capitol Hill. The neighborhood and community I have actively contributed to for almost two decades, anymore, often feels like a cheap oversized synthetic substitute of the place I have loved and to which I have given all of my adult years. Lately I am pulled in directions I can’t seem to keep up with, any more than I can keep up with an America whose vilest characteristics are being daily projected back on us all.

I always thought this was the age where most people raised Irish Catholic, like I was, began to develop cohesive conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination. I’m not there yet, but at birth I was named with the former president in mind. My mother, projecting grand, magnificent, prestigious things for her firstborn son, assigned to me her maiden name (Conole) as my middle name, like Kennedy’s mother (née Rose Fitzgerald) had. My mother’s running joke while I was growing up: “This way, if he becomes President of the United States, my family name will be in there too!” Among the first of many internalized pressures. My sincerest apologies, Conoles, I know how much you worshiped the Kennedys—but I’m afraid I’m not your golden boy candidate. Blessed brains on a pink skirt suit, why did Jack Ruby leave his favorite dog in the backseat of his car when he went in to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald? Poor pup.

*     *     *

My grandfather Conole (known by family as Baba) was my closest human connection until he left his body when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d been his primary caretaker during his last summer. Helping him dress in the morning, getting him to the bathroom multiple times per night, reading aloud the daily news, and most memorably, listening to (and often recording on my red Fisher Price tape recorder) his vast repository of stories. All of this taught me how to truly care for another. When he was gone, I found I couldn’t scrabble the emotional wherewithal to properly care for myself. Rather than dealing with the grief in constructive ways, my OCD became wildly exacerbated, and I slid into a tarry depression that has lasted ever since, to varying degrees of debilitation. Now, in this present world of funhouse mirrors, if you aren’t depressed, you may want to see a doctor.

*     *     *

After a one-year hiatus from graduate school in 2016, I am taking another stab at my fear of academics. But before I began this penultimate semester, I’d been on the verge of a dropout boogie, and my daily morning hippie speed balls (joint + coffee) weren’t exactly aiding my progress. I wanted to repair to somewhere distant, and contemplate my next life chapter(s). I was long overdue for a visit to my parents’ fourteenth floor condominium home in the small resort village of Estero, on the southwest coast of Florida. I, their middle, remotest child, was the only of their three offspring whom hadn’t been to visit since they retired there about five years ago, after selling our family home in Vestal, NY. I was fortunate enough to sublet my living space in Seattle to a trusted friend, and make a one-way reservation for early April, intending to stay in Estero for the Spring until my MFA program’s June residency in Los Angeles. Also itinerated was a trip up to Raleigh, NC to spend time with my brother—who’d had a recent health scare—and his family.

Setting for the Koreshan play “The Yellow Peril” in Estero, FL, CreativeCommons

I expected Florida to be a culture and climate shock, and it was. I felt prepared for any come-to-Jesus, what-are-you-doing-with-your-life? moments that might arise with my parents. A few days before my flight they informed me that, based on a strong referral from a friend, they had scheduled an appointment with a family psychologist for the morning after my arrival. I took mild offense to not having been consulted about this, though I knew they were well-intended. Then, when I got there, it became an appointment just for me.

“I just thought you might want to try this guy,” my dad reasoned over the phone. “You don’t have to, but he came highly recommended. I thought maybe you could get an assessment and we could get to the bottom of what’s been plaguing you all these years.”

With a combination of curiosity, obligation and anticipated ennui, I decided I would go. There was a woo-woo loop of ambient spiritual easy listening playing in the office anteroom as I waited for the doctor. After seeing his previous client out, he greeted me and apologized in his heavy Polish accent for the wait. I detected a certain strain of sanctimonious self-satisfaction that felt familiar to me. This began to make sense once I learned about his background. He had left Catholic seminary to pursue a career in psychology. There was something unsettling behind his priestly solicitude. But, I ended up feeling okay enough about our first meeting—during which we managed to locate the launching point of a crucial false narrative I’d been adhering to for far too long—to agree to return twice a week.

At the end of the session, he surprised me by noticeably adjusting his posture and proclaiming, “Just give me three weeks. Three weeks, and if you don’t feel better after three weeks, I want you to fire me.”

I laughed this off.

I didn’t quite return twice per week, but I did give the doctor more than six sessions. He gave me personality tests, diagnosed me with dysthymia or persistent depressive disorder, and PTSD. He prescribed to me daily morning cardiovascular exercise, and the book The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Llama. I mostly stuck to the exercise, but fell asleep each time I tried the book. Many times during my appointments with the doctor, I felt as though he should be paying me, and on more than a few occasions he gave me the creeps, asking questions that were unnecessary and unprofessional. I have always been the absolute worst at breaking up with people, but by the eighth or ninth session, I still wasn’t feeling a clear direction with this guy. I thanked him for our time together, and announced this would be our last session.

“Ha ha hah!” he burst out. “You have got to be kidding me.” I watched as his face filled with blood.

“No sir. I truly appreciate what we’ve covered, but I need to move on, and my June residency is just a couple of weeks away.”

Realizing I was serious, his truer colors emerged. “I can’t believe what I am hearing. John, you are a broken man. You need to stay here and give this process at least another month. I’ve worked with people who’ve been far more broken than you are, and turned them around completely. It’s like night and day! Listen, John, I enjoy working with you because you’re smart… Now, I like cars, so I’m going to use a car analogy here: You’re like a Ferrari, John. And you’ve spun yourself around, flipped yourself over, banged up against all the limits. But all you need is some body work, a new paint job. You’re still a Ferrari.”

“I don’t want to be a Ferrari.”

*     *     *

Portrait of the author by his young nephew

Since returning to Seattle, I have finally found a therapist with whom I feel comfortable, even excited, to work with. It only took twenty or so years, but I feel for the first time like I am making strides toward clearing all this heavy mud off my lens as I seek to clarify the world. What do I want to be? A Continental? A Lamborghini? Forklift or other conveyance?

I think I’ll forget the car metaphors, start with the conveyance that is my body. From there, I want to be: A teacher. A writer. A lover. A private investigator. A public investigator. A bass clarinetist. A fighter for human rights and social justice, at all costs. An enemy of the state. A menace to supremacy. Someone always in the process of waking up, who refuses to use community allyship as a balm for guilt or a prop for validation. An exemplary uncle, brother, son, friend. An enthusiast for the contradictions in the human soul. Concerned citizen of a world on fire, while also under water. Someone trying to remember how important it is to value your own ideas, even the ones that seem silly.

Self-expression is a form of self-respect.


John C. Fitzsimmons was born on the second day of 1979 and grew up in south central New York state. He attended Ithaca College before relocating to Seattle, WA in 2000. He has contributed to The Free Witch Quarterly, From Whatnot to Where I Belong, Picaroon Poetry, and Neither Here Nor There, a book about the band The Melvins. He is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, and has served on four issues of Lunch Ticket.