Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cool Dry Places

I’ve always hated the summer. Heat makes me nauseous. Humidity renders me lethargic, and sunshine triggers the inevitable fusillade of cluster headaches. I’m not talking about extreme heat and humidity either. Any outside temperature over 50 degrees will typically trigger an adverse change in my mood. When the thermometer reaches 65 or 70° my anxiety level quickens, and even more drastic distempers can set in.

Internally, I’m miserable for more than 50% of the year. What starts as discomfort in April blossoms into full-blown agony during the so-called dog days of July and August. I only reach a kind of physiological equilibrium by the time Halloween sets in. Perhaps that’s why Samhain season has always been my favorite time of the year.

I’ve always found it rather peculiar that the DSM-IV covers Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), i.e. “winter blues,” so extensively. An entire library of studies have been devoted to SAD’s causes and treatments. Yet my particular condition, let’s call it “summer sorrow,” only rates an off-hand appellation as Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder. Adding further insult to injury, Wikipedia disses us summer sufferers, offering a voluminous entry for SAD, while no entry at all for so-called Reverse SAD. To put things into further perspective, even Glenn Frey’s ill-fated TV series South of Sunset rates its own Wikipedia entry, and CBS only aired one episode back in 1993.

I discovered my aversion to June, July, and August at an early age. Most kids worship the season between spring and fall. In late January and early February, shivering children in schoolyards all across the country whisper the words “summer vacation” the way Peter and the Apostles murmured Jesus’ name in those dark days before the first Easter. Conversely, young Mark Kozak blanched at the thought of impending spring and the three stifling, blazing, interminable months that followed. Like I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I was not a normal kid.

Since early childhood, then, my unfolding life can be viewed as one futile, never-ending, anti-heroic quest to retreat from the heat and find the ultimate cool, dry place. While other kids reveled in fifteen unabated hours of sweltering sunlight, I studiously avoided the outdoors unless I sensed the chill of dusk or the cool dark breezes of approaching rain. Quite happily, I spent the summers of my youth barricaded in the back corner of my family’s garage, battling beneath the walls of Troy with broken broom handles, or poring over the pages of my burgeoning book and comics collections.

During those long summer “vacations” between the ages of seven and thirteen, I read and reread my comic books continuously, just as I periodically lost myself in the pages of The Boy’s King Arthur, the d’Aulaires’ illustrative retellings of Greek and Norse myths, or any of Bernard Evslin’s books. That corner of the garage became my first cool, dry place, and even today serves as a repository for numerous cardboard boxes containing poetry, short stories, and Trademark comicbook sagas from my high school and collegiate years.

With early adolescence, I found a greater degree of freedom to explore the outside world while seeking even cooler, drier places. Only forty-five minutes from my house via the 75 RTA bus, I discovered the Cleveland Public Library downtown, specifically the John G. White Collection of Folklore, Oriental, and Medieval Literature. This collection, housed in its own designated room in the old library, became my sanctuary after school and during the summer break. Armed with nothing but my youthful love of myths and legends, I began digesting Homer, the Eddas and Malory in their original translations while simultaneously tackling some pretty heady scholarly works along the way: Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Middleton’s Evolution of Arthurian Romance, to name just a few. Although I had no idea at the time, my fun summer reading was unwittingly preparing me for my next cool, dry place -- the seventh floor stacks at Ohio University’s Alden Library.

I discovered Alden’s seventh floor stacks early during my first fall at OU. While other “typical” freshman frolicked outside, soaking up the waning warmth of Athens’ September, I retreated into the comfort zone I craved: quiet, solitude, air conditioning, books. I hadn’t even completed my first week of classes before I stumbled upon an article in a scholarly journal that provided me with a truly Joycean epiphany. I wish now that I’d written down the author’s name or the article’s title, but alas I didn’t. I do recall that I found the article in a sociology journal because I’d done a subject search on “comic books.”

Essentially, the article compared the transmission of comicbook idioms into our popular culture to the transmission of mythic lessons into the cultures of various ancient societies. Here, for the first time, I encountered a school of social and literary criticism that not only considered comicbooks serious literature, but also defined comicbooks as “modern mythology.” Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I began to understand why I couldn’t just simply put away my comicbooks with other childish things.

Almost from the moment I began reading myths, legends, and comic books, I intuitively sensed a deep archetypal connection between ancient epic heroes and contemporary superheroes. All I had to do was look at the characters of Thor, Hercules, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel (Shazam!) to see that comicbooks not only borrowed from myth but actually retold the ancient stories with a modern twist. When I started fashioning my own primordial superheroes and villains at age seven, my first creations were based on mythic characters I loved: Sir Launcelot, Fenris, Momotaro. Several years later, when I birthed the Trademark Universe, I quickly incorporated Achilles, the biblical Cain, and four elemental gods -- Flurry, Hellfield, Torrent, and Landslide -- into the mix. Somehow, almost instinctively, I knew my new universe needed a tangible link to the traditions of Hesiod, Snorri and La Chanson de Roland.

Amazingly, my college literature courses didn’t kill my love of comicbooks or my desire to create my own personal, modern mythology. In fact, higher education only succeeded in making my vision of the Trademark Universe even more ambitious. The entire time I was deconstructing Thomas Hardy and crafting Carveresque works of short fiction, I was simultaneously and surreptitiously scripting comicbooks inside my head. No one in the Honors Tutorial program for English had any idea that I was internally narrating the story of my life in the form of a comicbook.

Just like me, eighteen-year-old hybrid Buckshot found himself attending college incognito, terrified at the prospect of being revealed, looking for a girl that might accept him (homicidal past and all), and basically just trying to fit in. When my mentor Dr. Laurence Bartlett introduced me to Shakespeare’s Prospero, Milton’s Satan, and Shelley’s Prometheus, I found myself utilizing aspects of their complex personalities in the development of Trademark’s arch-supervillains, the Maniac, the Suzerain, and Cain. Likewise, my introduction to the concept of the Byronic Hero breathed new life into my decade-old creation Hellfield. In fact, Worlds Apart itself draws direct inspiration from a work first encountered at OU, John Barth’s postmodern, metafictional classic Chimera, introduced to me in a graduate creative writing workshop by the late, great Sheila Schwartz.

In many ways, my four years at OU represent one long, extended respite in a cool, dry place. Since leaving the bucolic surroundings of that Harvard on the Hocking, I’ve never again been able to meld the mundane preoccupations of my external existence with the esoteric ruminations of my internal landscape. Put more plainly, every day in the real, working world is caniculares dies, a dog day at the height of summer.

Jobs, bosses, customers, bills, taxes, standing in line at the DMV -- it all makes me nauseous, lethargic, and sick in the head. If not for the cool, dry places of my mature adulthood -- rambling talks with my wife, ambling hikes with my dog, aimless evening drives listening to Frank Rosolino, quiet back booths savoring a cold beer and a good book -- I doubt I ever would have finished Worlds Apart. In fact, I’d probably still be hiding from the sun in the corner of that old garage, fruitlessly dreaming among the stacks of unopened boxes, desperately waiting for the weather to change.

1 comment:

Tony said...

You had Sheila Schwartz? I had Sheila Schwartz!