A new anxiety thing I have lately is obsessing over the idea that I’ve left the stove on or something else unattended to after I’ve left the house. There are plenty of good subconscious reasons for this but also—sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I really did leave the stove on. Sometimes it seems as though there are just gaps in reality, through which fall spaces of several minutes.
Once when I was a kid, my dad tried to emphasize the importance of not talking to strangers, under any circumstance, to me, and he said, “Someone could come up to you in a car and say, ‘I’ve got a piece of cake for you if you get in my car.’ And I was like, ‘What kind of cake are we talkin’?’ And my dad said, “They could say, ‘I have your sister in here and I’m gonna kill her if you don’t get in here.’ And I said, “How do they know I have a sister?” He said, “Fifty-fifty chance.” I was like, “Dad, that math does not track at all. I’m eight years old and I know that.”
About a year ago, I had just moved to New York, and I was living with my girlfriend Amanda in an airbnb in Flushing, Queens. Some of you might know that area– the population is predominantly Asian, it’s the last stop on the 7 train, all the way out there, and it does not so much feel “in the shadow of New York City,” as you sometimes hear New Jersey described, as it does like a base on the moon or Antarctica, just completely isolated. And as it happens, the same week we move there, a man shoots his girlfriend and then himself in broad daylight on a crowded street, and another man murders his family then burns down his house not far from where we’re staying.
Again, I’m not very rational about this stuff. It’s a failing of mine that I have trouble divorcing mental illness—anxiety, depression, and worse—from its depiction in media, the idea of “insanity,” this spooky thing. Literal devils in your head. And that’s me being divorced from reality in yet another way.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately because I’ve been following the story of Will Russell, founder of Lebowskifest. Lebowskifest is a convention for fans of the 1998 Coen brothers movie The Big Lebowski. Attendees dress up as characters and watch the movie and bowl and drink white Russians and what have you. I interviewed Russell once and he was clearly pretty brilliant, gregarious, and just super-quick with deep-cut Lebowski references: “Proud we are of all of them,” “Lotta strands in old Duder’s head…” and so on.
According to another interview he gave, on Vice, inventing Lebowskifest allowed Russell to work his way out of a depression, and eventually he was able to do successful conventions all over the country while at the same time operating a curiosity shop in Louisville, where he lives. He got married, had a daughter, and bought a defunct roadside attraction in nearby Cave City. Then, last year, he was diagnosed with melancholic depression. His brain had atrophied, no medication worked, and his only option was electroshock therapy—similar to what David Foster Wallace went through.
This summer, he was charged at Lebowskifest with smoking a j in public and resisting arrest, and since then he has been arrested a few more times, and his posts on social media have become increasingly erratic and confusing. He went and smashed up statues at his roadside attraction, Funtown Mountain, and splashed yellow paint all over. All the employees quit and he started giving parts of the attraction away, defending the whole thing as an art piece. Comments people leave on his Facebook page vary from abusive jeers to sincere expressions of concern to blatant enabling. He loses custody of his daughter. He speaks of being severely in debt.
Russell takes spraypaint to his storefront next, writing the word “SHATTER” across the windows. On the side of the store, there’s a mural that depicts a Kentuckian version of Mount Rushmore—Muhammad Ali, Lincoln, Colonel Sanders and Secretariat. Russell paints Secretariat’s eyes red. A local news site captures him sitting on the stoop of the storefront, hair cut like Richie Tenenbaum, holding a guitar and talking into a device like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now! “I’m not a maniac anymore,” he says. “I’m not a wild animal anymore, I’m not depressed anymore, I’m not a bad husband anymore, I’m not a bad father anymore, I’m not a bad son, I’m nothing like that. I’m Will Russell, I like stuff, I play music, I like to eat food, I love Louisville, Kentucky; I love Cave City, I love Bowling Green, I love Florida, California, New York, I love London, I love The Big Lebowski, and I want more. And that’s on me.”
In Flushing, I dreamed Amanda and I were walking in Brooklyn, and in the dream I crossed the street to go to a donut shop I’d been to before in real life. Only the shop was boarded up, and when I looked closer, a young man with hot coal eyes pulled the door wide open and started strangling me. I cried out, both in the dream and real life, and woke up with a panicked loss of breath just like being strangled.
According to dreammoods.com, “To see a doughnut in your dream represents the Self. It suggests you may be feeling lost and still trying to find yourself and your purpose in life. Alternatively, it refers to growth, development and nurturance. You are not yet completely whole.”
Out in Flushing, Queens, you walk around the suburbs and you can sometimes feel the pulsing energy of every murder-suicide, all these emotional apocalypses, a lifetime of silence, then very loud for just a few moments, then another, eternal silence. And out in Louisville, Will Russell is abiding for all us sinners.