Coughing Up a Writer’s Block


Lately, I am a thing coughed. Or a vehicle for spasms, which deny the pleas of my brain—the so-called higher powers—in favor of the visceral dominance of the thundering lungs. At least the coughing doesn’t interfere with my typing—except when it’s a sudden blast in the middle of keying in a word.

“The coughing,” in this new world of mine, is what happens nearly every time I try to navigate a spoken sentence. I had a cold five weeks ago that seemed your standard package of sneezy blear and leaden fatigue, playing itself out in a week or so. But the cough. The cough, Coltrane’s longest saxophone screech, a filibuster of a cough, endless, monopolizing.

That cough, the one that won’t stop.

Writing and Other Blasts of Air

You, as any sensible person who doesn’t want to read about self-gazing medical conditions might ask, “What’s that got to do with writing?” Well, a couple of things: one, it’s odd to be taken out of your day-to-day and made to realize how locked in you are to certain behaviors and “natural” expressions. For the last five weeks, I haven’t been able to speak more than a sentence or two without coughing or wheezing or sputtering. This obscure debility keeps creeping into my thoughts about writing, my motivations toward writing. I seem less a writer with a cough than a cough with a writer attached.

My condition has made for truly odd phone calls where I’ll drop away in mid-word, or in conversation with someone where I’ll try and hurry out a sentence before my convulsion. Trying to avoid this reflex abdominal trampling has changed the tone of my voice as well, where I’ve gone from a brimming baritone to the sound of, perhaps, a pecking piccolo.

Since I regularly assert my masculinity by knowing the right deodorant and shoe color to buy, these squeaky voicings trouble me.

Drug Him!

I’ve gone the inhaler route and prescription cough medication route and groovy-cough-medication-from-the-natural-foods-store route and all those routes have been dead ends so far. So I’ll see a lung doc next week; maybe we can smoke some cigarettes together and mull it. (Weirdly enough, when I last had this condition—and yes, I’ve had it before, once lasting more than six months—one of the things my doctor recommended was to smoke pot with a vaporizer. That was 10 years ago, before vaporizers were available like apples from the market. Vaporizing pot didn’t help the cough, but it rekindled a love affair with Doritos.)

All in all, I feel fine; it’s just the cough that’s the problem. This setback, temporary I’m sure, does make me wonder: how do people deal with the disruption to their lives (and deal with the anxiety and fear) when their condition is serious? You really don’t know how you’ll behave in the face of something grave. I only have the frustration of a minor condition—I don’t have to muster up any courage.

At least I can write without breaking into hacking barks. And my cough gave me something to write about today. I have heard that laughter is the best medicine, but since laughing makes me cough, I’ll stick to bourbon and honey.

Nine Lives Aren’t Enough

Abe on the way to the next stage

Have you had that experience where you meet someone you take to immediately, where something about their manner, their look, maybe even how they hold their head, has an irresistible charm? And how sometimes that person needn’t have two legs to qualify, but four?

My sweetheart Alice and I were house-sitting for a few days in Sonoma County a bit back, visiting friends and spending time out on the coast for an article about Ft. Ross. We’d arranged to swap houses with a couple in Santa Rosa, them taking care of our cat and us taking care of their cat, Abe, who was 20 years old. Now, 20 years old isn’t merely elderly for a cat—that’s an age where they’ve been receiving feline Social Security for a couple of generations. That’s a venerable cat, a centenarian, one of the ancients.

So we had some trepidation about caring for him—could he get around, could we leave him in the house alone, what if he got sick? When we first saw him, he was sleeping so soundly that it was hard to get a handle on his ways. Not that our noise could wake him, because he was essentially deaf. But when he first rose and came out to us in the living room, that instant appreciation happened: he had a distinctive way of soft-stepping with each paw, a dainty way of gently moving his long, lean frame forward that was delightful to watch. He was immediately curious about us, coming close, looking into our faces, appreciating our petting with a soft squeak.

The squeak was the most his old vocal chords could muster in the way of a meow. But we loved him right off. Abe the cat, Old Abe, Honest Abe. When he wasn’t sleeping his long hours, he was quite alert and notably conscious of human company, looking you in the eye for acknowledgment and conversation, even one held in squeaks, falling on closed ears.

A Cat’s Charm Sticks

He slept on the bed with us that first night, fast friends, and I was afraid I would crush him by turning over on him. But it worked out fine, though his frailness concerned us when we left for hours at the coast. But he was happy when we returned and happy over the days we were there. When Alice and I returned to Santa Cruz, we remarked several times about his charm. We had to return ten days ago to Santa Rosa for a memorial for one of Alice’s oldest friends, a sad thing, but we were happy to see old Abe again and renew the acquaintance.

But we’d been warned that Abe hadn’t been doing that well, having had some respiratory trouble, probably with allergies. So we were more fearful now than when we’d first heard that he was 20. But he was again charming, friendly and responsive, and through the sadness of the memorial, we were happy again to be with Abe. I spent a while sitting with him on the house’s big rug right before we left, petting him and telling him we hoped to see him again.

So when we heard the other day from Abe’s owner that his breathing problems had become overwhelming, and that she had to have him put down, it was a blow. She had cared for Abe as family for all of his 20 years, and indeed he was her family. Her and her husband’s loss is tremendous, but it surprised me how much I felt it. But maybe not so surprising, because as I suggested at the beginning, some people charm you from moment one, and Abe was that guy.

The Soul’s Lasting Light

Despite my long years of Catholic school (or maybe because of them), I don’t believe in a paternalistic God, looking down on the billions of us with loving benignity. But I do believe there is something immortal in us, however it dwells within us, and that it continues on when the body fails. And I also believe that animals have a soul—you can see it when you look, with attention, into their eyes.

And I’ll probably sweat in hell for this too, but I don’t buy the standard concepts of heaven either. But here’s how it should be: heaven is a baseball game in a beautiful old stadium, where the beer is a dime and hot dogs a quarter. The home team is ahead by two runs and you’re feeling good, with family and friends. (And there are no damn Yankees.)

And if we go extra innings, Abe, I’ll get you another beer.

The Strange, Wonderful, Is That Poop I Smell Year


Photo Credit: jadiwangi Flickr via Compfight cc

It’s been a strange year. One where the word “strange” can’t contain its multitudes, a year where the globe itself seemed to be ripping at the seams, or be one of those cartoon images where a character is literally steaming, smoke out the ears, fire-engine face, sure to blow. That kind of year.

Many, many people have written about our president, much more eloquently than me. I’ll keep it contained: our president is an extraordinary liar, a man of the shallowest conceits, a man with no concept of decency. I believe he has taken our country to dangerous places, to uncharted immoral waters, the consequences of which will affect us for long time to come.

But I am complicit. I’ve allowed this administration to get deep in my head, so that it’s affected my well-being, my sense of self and yes, certainly my writing. I’ve participated in the collective howl against the regressive tide, but other than signing many petitions, contributing to a few progressive causes, and making bitter statements in the grotto of my skull, I’ve done nothing. Well, I have done something—I’ve ceded a lot of my thinking and consciousness over to anxiety, and mostly pointless anxiety.

Anxiety Lacks Nutrients (But Could Fuel Some Writing)
I’m not going to be as generous with consenting to this fruitless anxiety over government malfeasance, though I will continue to resist the lies of our original fake news purveyor. But of more use to me as a writer, I’m going to turn some of that stomach churn to the keyboard, and see if there’s redemption there.

There’s a quote from poet Jane Hirshfield in the latest Poets and Writers that reads thusly:

“Remind yourself why it is you wanted to write in the first place. That might be done by revisiting work by others you find awakening and electrifying, or find disturbing in useful ways, the ways disturbed soil can become receptive ground for new seeds.”

I’ve been disturbed all right, and this year’s soil has smelled distressingly of poop, but there has to be some flower potential in there. With all the earthquakes and floods, and California burning, so much has seemed apocalyptic. But the year’s not a total wash: lots of good things written, lots of good things read, travel to the Caribbean and Europe, my mother, at 95, still alive and happy. Still moving, still drinking—er, I mean thinking—still seeing sparkling mornings.

There’s still plenty left to write about. Join me—let’s type together in the new year. (Oh, but I’ve got dibs on the “e” key.)

Writers Rely on the Kindness of Characters

Stuttgart train system. (Yeah, and this is just the top layer)

I recently returned from a press trip to Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart is a old, old city, with many historic sites, cultural activities and lively districts. The city has a large railway station for local and regional trains, and the system branches widely, with overlapping and criss-crossing routes. Many people ride the trains, but few ride them like me: I got on the wrong train a few times, went past my stops a couple of times, walked the wrong way to my destination a couple of times after taking the right train, and once went entirely in the wrong train direction.

But here is where the kindness of strangers comes in: most Germans, having the benefit of compulsory English-language education when young, speak some English. Many speak it very well, but almost everyone who had to face the confused American spinning around at various train stations was able to point him in the right direction and wish him well on his journey. I’m back home, and the only thing I seemed to have lost is the ability to easily drink a liter of beer in one sitting.

However, because my writerly thoughts often turn towards an odd angle, it occurred to me how simple gestures of kindness can bring disproportionate happiness, or in my case, relief from the anxiety of being lost in an unfamiliar city. That brought me to thinking of a secondary character in a novel I wrote with another author a year ago. (Dang thing is still unpublished, but we’re working on it.)

Massimo Rides a White Horse
There is a character named Massimo Volpedo in the work who serves as a plot tool to inflame the lead character with suspicion, gloom and capricious action, because he suspects that Massimo is trying to steal his girl. I say “plot tool” because we needed the main character—Pinky DeVroom, and yes many of the character names are colorful—to blow up to almost bursting to move one of the central plot lines along.

But Massimo, who is six-foot-six, broad of beam and white of teeth, is also gay, a fact that eludes poor Pinky until he’s deep into the muck he’s made of his relationship with his lady love. And here’s where I get to something resembling my point: one of Massimo’s cellular-level traits is that he’s very kind. He is long-suffering too, but his travails have never altered the course of his decency.

When Rick and I created him, we had a vague idea of where and how his actions would propel (or pull the rug out from under) the novel. But we didn’t map out the blood and bones of his being before we tossed him in the book. His fundamental decency emerged in the writing. And the funny thing about your characters is that their behavior can reward you, the writer (and it’s hoped, the reader as well). Massimo’s goodness—and it’s not a treacly kind of goodness—made me feel better about people. His kindness was a reward of sorts, the way that I was rewarded for the lost compass of my mind so many times in Stuttgart train stations.

It’s such a cynical time that it’s challenging to even consider creating a character of full integrity, or one whose goodness doesn’t have some stripe of irony in it. But in Massimo I think we did create a person who is an ideal of sorts, though he also stumbles, he also bleeds. However, his life always moves to the light, and in some odd way, that is a beacon for me as well.

Oh, if you were one of those several people at a Stuttgart train stop who blessed me with a good direction to go, the liters of beer are on me.

PS Just a few days left to nominate my novel Aftershock for the Kindle Scout program. Any help greatly appreciated!

Archives or Compost Heap: Weeding Through Your Old Writing

I think Milton and I collaborated on this one, before he did Paradise Lost

This past week I’ve been sifting through old, very old and even cobwebbed articles of mine, prompted by a contest requesting an essay-collection submission. The winner will have their collection published, and will probably be knighted in a ceremony involving champagne baths and French horns. (There’s still time to enter if you have hoary archives of your own: check out the Monadnock Essay Collection Prize.)

It’s funny to go through old pieces of writing, because it’s like looking at old pictures of yourself: there’s one with a funny haircut, why in God’s name would you wear that, and were you really so fascinated by that dull place? And in the reading, you see that the adamantine habits in your writing that you’ve tried so hard to eliminate—say, using limp qualifiers like “just” or “very” willy nilly—began long ago, and like old scars, are still visible now.

But what really occurred to me in going through this dusty pile of hides in the cellar is that I’ve been doing this for a long time. The contest required between 50,000–60,000 words in the collection, and I had to throw away many candidates—with all the scribbling I’ve done over time, I could have put three collections of published material together. So, I’m lucky that way, because there was a lot of dreck in there, from which to winnow.

Cream Over Pig’s Legs

Looking at some of the material I wrote makes me thankful that a lot of the journals and outlets that published it have properly faded away—the old bones no longer smell. But it’s nice to have a history to sift through, because you can tuck a lot of the pieces that have pig’s legs to the bottom, which means that something—one hopes cream—rises.

It’s also fun—playing the publisher—to arrange the pieces, in some kind of loose thematic scheme: I found an introductory piece that opens up from a colorful memory of a trip to Vegas and it moves into a “what is the American character” flavor, which feels like a good way to gun the engine at the start. The concluding piece supplies a sense of “it’s a shaky cosmos, but we’re all in it together.” As an editor, that was a fun exercise in scaffolding and structure.

Scrivener Makes Them Toe the Line

Speaking of editing, I used Scrivener to pull all the essays together in bulk, and then its wonderful drag-and-drop sorting to instantly move them around. And around and around, since I was working with the first cull of between 50–100 essays, and tossed them all about in the compilation many times, eliminating many, changing some words in a few, fiddling with titles. Then I dumped it all back into Word for final formatting.

So, all of those muscle spasms I’ve had over the years at the keyboard were worth something. I doubt I’ll win the contest, but it was interesting to filter through the perspectives (and use of language) seen in my past pieces, and to see what were constants and what were flirtations. Who knows, I might use the collection as a freebie to induce the innocent to sign up for my email list, so I can torment more readers.

If you’ve been writing for a while, do you ever go back to your old stuff? Do you cringe or do you crow? I saw a fair amount of piffle, but there were some gems too. Enough to keep on writing and see if I can do better.

Writers Need to See Their Inner Lisa Simpson

Lisa, blowing hot and cool

I live near a series of sloughs, tidal waterways where many shore and seabirds—ducks, geese, pelicans and gulls, wrens, swifts, finches and blackbirds—ply their trade. There are nice trails that wind through the shoreline’s green growth, flanked by nearby businesses and homes. At lunch time on work days I often walk the trails, alone or with Alice, a great respite from the MacBook screen.

At some points on the sloughs there are tree-shrouded pockets, often down embankments, where homeless people have made small camps. They are periodically flushed out by city workers maintaining the slough trails. I’ve never felt threatened by these people, and have often greeted them when they are up on the trails, but I’ve never felt fully comfortable seeing them in the makeshift forest “caves” they craft out of tarps and odds and ends. I’ve never offered them any help either, not wanting to get involved in the hardship of their lives.

The other day, I was walking alone on one of the trails near the “entrance” of what is lately the biggest of the encampments, and on top of a nearby covered trash can was one of the toys you see in the image above—Lisa Simpson on a little red chair, wailing on the sax. It was a bit scruffy, but it was perfectly positioned to be looking out at people who passed by on the trail. Now I have no clue whether it’s true, but I’m sure it was one of the homeless people, displaying a bit of humor for people going by.

Boo Radley Did It First

It reminded me a little of Boo Radley, in To Kill a Mockingbird, leaving trinkets and minor valuables in the knothole of a tree for Jem and Scout. That small gesture—and again, who knows if it even was one of the homeless people—made me realize once again that as a writer, I need to stop the constant tape playing in my mind and see people as individuals. Not just “that homeless guy in the bushes” but that particular guy, six feet tall, skinny, with strange shoes and a loopy grin, and maybe a mother who wonders where he is. See the person, not the projection (which, if fear is a component of the seeing, is always blurred).

There’s an interesting post on cultural appropriation and writers here on WriterUnboxed that asks if it’s OK for writers to write outside of their genders, their race, their culture. The comments, almost all measured and thoughtful, express well-considered opinions from various points of view. I wrote there about a novel of mine where one of the main characters is a black homeless guy, an ex-alcoholic, modeled after someone I saw pretty much every day on the streets outside of where I worked.

The reader is in the mind of that character a good deal, and that mind is that of a black, middle-aged guy on the street, a wounded Vietnam vet who destroyed his family relationships with alcohol and who is making his way back the hard way. That’s a mind far from my own. I won’t put my long comment on that post here, but it ends with, “I probably get it wrong fairly often, but writing in the minds of people different from yourself is one of the ways we try to understand each other.”

Small revelation, I suppose, that we’re all individuals here, making our way as best we can, but for writers (and broadly, for everyone) it’s essential to try to hear the saxophone behind the tree-line of our personal boundaries, and try to make out the tune.

Writing (or Writhing) in the Margins Between the Political, the Professional and the Personal

This old tree of ours never reads the news, and look how it’s doing

“Crisis, change, all the myriad upheavals that blister the spirit and leave us groping—they aren’t voices simply of pain but of creativity.”
—Sue Monk Kidd

I spent a lot of last week—and with only vague success—trying to not read too much news. The drumbeat of madness from Washington has had a paralyzing effect on me. I am accustomed, even eager, to read several sources of news in the mornings, and go from there, informed and alert, to my current writing project.

But recently my reading has left me stunned, so that I fidget at the keyboard, make a false start with whatever I’m writing, glance again at a different news site, look on Twitter for mounting evidence of our government turning its back on its people, and then having a numbed, shell-shocked sense of dislocation.

I was around when Nixon was in his heyday, but this is the most cynical, least statesmanlike administration I’ve ever seen. Our president is not simply incompetent, but spectacularly deceitful. It boggles my mind.

Perhaps worse yet I sense that he has no moral compass: he is not a decent man.

Maybe this sounds like the standard liberal pabulum, that I need my pacifier and my stroller for my nanny-state government. But it doesn’t feel that way. I do know the Democrats missed a significant message from a wide swath of the population that’s really hurting. But this “solution” feels like less of one, for all of us, every day.

The Headlines Hurt the Head

Because I have deadlines, and work to do, I vowed last week to avoid reading the headlines and analysis. But I was only partially successful—the sheer luridness of it pulled me in, though less deeply than weeks before.

My purpose in writing this is to look at how this strange situation has given my writing the jitters. I’ve still met my business-writing deadlines and have penned some creative pieces as well, but there’s been so little joy in it. But raging against the machine seems like a Sisyphean sort of response, no matter how justified.

Have I actually done anything about these threats to our republic? Other than signing a bunch of online petitions and frothing at the mouth in front of my friends, no. No attendance at rallies, no writing/calling my congresspeople, no marches on Washington. I’ve bounced on the trampoline of my mind wondering if there’s something or someone I could write that could make a tangible contribution, without it being some kind of self-congratulatory “Well, I did my duty, where’s the beer?”

Strange Days (and Daze)

There’s a confluence of concerns in my household’s air these days: not only is the Orange Beast spreading his malevolence, but several of our friends are in late cancer stages and others are undergoing emotional turmoil. At least we can reach out to them and offer connection and concern.

But in the face of poisoned politics, mere rage is pointless. There is some evidence that writing about your emotional turmoil is a helpful way to distance yourself from distressing life experiences, so while I’m musing over some more effective way to address my squirming, I’ll take comfort in that.

Thanks for listening.

Writers: Warren Zevon Died for Your Sins

BurningGuitar

Good American that I am, I was waxing my car in the garage last weekend, when a Warren Zevon song came on the radio. The wax job immediately brightened, because Zevon’s stuff is often jolly wordplay, painted with irony and wit, and this song, “Werewolves of London” is Zevon at his absurdist perfection. The whole song is weirdly, rollickingly splendid, but it has a line that kills me every time: “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vics,” a pause, and then the insouciantly delivered, “His hair was perfect.”

The writing credits for that number have a couple of other names, but if you know Zevon, you know he had a heavy hand in arranging that werewolf’s hair. So many of his tunes were spiced with the oddly angled, delightfully perverse bite of his mind: “Excitable Boy,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” He could also be perfectly world-weary, like in “Carmelita” (and truly world-weary, near his death, with “Keep Me in Your Heart”).

Legacy and Fame: Two Different Things

But I don’t come to praise Zevon, but to dig him up. What I mean by that, for writers, is that Zevon had a pretty good career, cut short by a form of lung cancer that undoubtedly was part of his hard lifestyle. He was highly respected in songwriting circles, but he never blasted to the top-tier of stardom. I don’t have a clue if he even wanted that, but I want to look at his work in light of what he put into his writing: himself.

His work is sardonic, witty, and sometimes outright weird. He wasn’t afraid to go into areas—death, sex, crime—where some other writers might shy from. And his work is highly original—if you listen to many of his songs, you see he didn’t take the easy way out. Probably because he couldn’t—he couldn’t help putting himself fully in his writing. His version of the perfect rock ’n roll love song wouldn’t top the charts because the charts were almost always topped by writing that never ventured into grottos of the imagination, didn’t step in muck and then laugh about it.

What Your Writing Needs Most Is You

The point of my elegy here is that writers should put their flesh in their writing: the stuff that tears at you, the stuff behind a forbidding door, the soft gong of alarm in the night that no one else hears. Zevon left early, and maybe he’s forgotten by many (or never ever heard by many more), but he managed to be true to himself in his work, even if he danced with some demons too. He left early, but he left a lot behind.

Bonus Zevon Sighting

Zevon was a hard drinker, and it didn’t always serve him well. I was at a Grateful Dead concert in Santa Barbara in the late 70s, and Zevon was one of the opening acts. This was an afternoon concert, in a stadium, and the Dead crowd was restless to get twirling, and were calling for the Dead during Zevon’s set. He was about six sheets to the wind, and started screaming back at the crowd, calling them 60s burn-outs (was that an insult?). He wobbled off the stage at the end of his set, after he unleashed a frenzy of punitive guitar feedback.

Devon lost some good years to the bottle, but his songwriting output was still prodigious, and wholly individual. I don’t recommend that you pour Jack Daniels over your corn flakes before your morning pages (it’s better on oatmeal), but I do recommend that you remember to put your real self in your writing, whether it’s in fiction or non—put in the wrinkles, put in the bloodshot eyes, put in Mona Lisa’s sly smile.

Leave the best (and sometimes the worst) of you on the page, and as one of Zevon’s inimitably titled songs suggests, you can sleep when you’re dead. If the words ring, there’s a fair chance someone will remember.

Five Ways Writers Can Deal with Depression

If you see this guy in the neighborhood, tell him to take the day off

If you see this guy in the neighborhood, tell him to take the day off

A little bit back, the brother of one of my old friends committed suicide. He’d been depressed for a while; I’m uncertain if he’d expressed any dramatic intentions about ending his life before his death. Not long after that, the brother of a woman who works with my girlfriend Alice killed himself. Again, a man who struggled with depression. Most recently, one of Alice’s friends, a woman who has suffered depression and other anxiety issues, was found dead, under puzzling circumstances that are yet to be explained.

That’s a lot of death, and a lot of suffering that preceded it. The people I mention above weren’t writers, but I want to turn the discussion to writers and depression, because it’s a subject that’s been explored by medical professionals and by other writers. There’s some contention with the notion that writers and artists in general are more sensitive to depression and associated conditions, but the list of well-known authorial depressives is broad: Sylvia Plath, Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.K. Rowling, Tennessee Williams, Stephen King, and my shining guide, Mark Twain—and lots more. The famous names suggest that there’s a wider carnival of sad writers, but their lack of fame hasn’t let us peer into their dank mental grottoes.

Writers have a peculiar set of traits that can lend themselves to dark thoughts. Stereotypes can often trip up facts, and exceptions are everywhere, but writers are often inward, reflective sorts. Many are introverted, and spend less time in jolly social engagement than other people. Many are frustrated and thwarted by the impossible demands of language—no piece of writing ever seems good enough. Many are frustrated by the demands and rejections—and right now, the everything-changes-everyday—of the publishing world.

Hey, Isn’t That My Face?
I have known a number of writers that had depressive tendencies, but the one I know best is me. My own mild (and less often, moderate) depression has followed me from adolescence into my adult life. Its face has morphed from “There is no meaning” to “I have no meaning” and back again, over and over. Sometimes the face is just an old photograph in one of my rooms, forgotten until I look, but sometimes it’s the only face I see in the mirror.

When you are depressed, the knowledge that “this will pass” means little. It’s like being softly smothered, or encased in a shell of dullness where sight, hearing and thinking are subdued. Contrarily for me, the state also carries a bit of a malevolent energy—I can feel it coming on, a tingle in the soul. And often it’s not precipitated by any event. However, when you’re in it, the key of “Hey, at a fundamental level, you are OK,” doesn’t fit into any slot of belief.

But I’m grateful that I don’t have full-blown depression, which renders some people near catatonic or incapable of action. I have dark thoughts indeed, and they go places they shouldn’t, but I’ve found that these foul possessions rarely last more than three or four days, a week at most, and then, blessedly, they lift.

There are so many people with tremendously more challenging lives than me, but the depressive state of mind remains a real and a serious thing. I’ve found a few helpful ways to fight it:

Five Anti-Depressants That Don’t Require a Doctor
1. Regular exercise. Even a half-hour walk a day is beneficial. The body moves, the blood circulates, the mind can look at the passing scenery and not fold in on itself.

2. Meditation: I’ve been meditating in the mornings, between 10-20 minutes, for more than a year now. It has been grounding for me; though my mediations can be fitful, because the brain is a spastic ping-pong ball, there is a calming solace in just sitting, breathing and watching the brain ponging.

3. St. John’s Wort: I don’t want to become another one of the pharmaceutical industry’s minions, so I’ve chosen an herbal supplement that many feel offers relief. And many people don’t. For severe depression, prescription anti-depressives can be life-saving, but that route doesn’t feel right to me. But placebo or not, I’ve taken St. John’s Wort on and off for years, and think there is a mild benefit: fewer episodes of depression and fewer episodes of longer-lasting depression. Your mileage may vary.

4. Writing: I often duck, sidestep or back away from my creative writing (hey, all you marketing-writing or editing clients: I always do the work, and with full attention, mopey or not) when I’m feeling low, and that seems to reinforce or exacerbate the soul-drain. Writing anything—essay, fiction, travel piece, haiku—gives the sad face more lift.

5. A person who believes in you: I’m grateful that Alice is around to tell me to stop moping. I don’t stop moping, but I appreciate her efforts. She has watched my struggles in these areas for years, and has stuck around to help. She is a dear creature, even if she has funny hair.

And one I didn’t list as my own, because I’ve yet to try it, but I’m considering it: a SAD therapy lamp. Winters do seem harder for me than other seasons.

And if none of those help, there’s always dropping a little acid. I saw that Tim Ferriss is underwriting (and crowdfunding) a Johns Hopkins study on the efficacy of psychedelics in treating depression and PTSD. The initial research is very promising. And the mushrooms might be good in pasta.

Seriously though, the pain of the families that I mentioned above is unimaginable. If you are habitually down, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a way out, get help. There is a way out, and it’s not by taking your life. There’s a National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800 273-8255, and here’s their associated website.

Better days ahead.

A Writer’s Gratitude Tastes Like Pumpkin Pie

Photo Credit: djwtwo via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: djwtwo via Compfight cc

There’s a lot of good to say about gratitude. Even though gratitude can seem like an industry these days (books! blogs! speeches!), and that making a gratitude list at Thanksgiving time can seem as creative as Cool Whip, expressing gratitude is still one of those things that can lift your spirits.

Gratitude can let you realize that your lot in life is a lot, not a less. Gratitude can connect you to people and to yourself. It can even make you healthier. It’s great to be grateful.

This gratitude post has two voices: one is my writer’s voice, and one is my wise guy voice. They are both grateful, though their approaches are different. Not all of the items on my writer’s list are writerly, and not all of the items on my wise guy’s list are wise.

Writer:
I am deeply grateful that my mom has moved into assisted living and retained her warm spirit, and even increased her vitality since she had to leave my boyhood home. And grateful as well for the good health and spirit of my siblings and of my sweetheart, who are all doing pretty well.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that my mom never found out about all of the illegal, dangerous and downright stupid things I did as a kid. (Though she thinks she does know them all; mom, you would call the cops even now.)

Writer:
I’m grateful for my own health, which though it’s tilted at a few windmills this year, it’s righted itself without collapsing altogether.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that the antibiotics that recently saved me from the gut-clenching bacteria I brought back from Myanmar tasted like jellybeans. [Note: you can choose to believe wise guy remarks or not.]

Writer:
I’m grateful to have good old friends—some from more than 30 years back and even some more than 40 years back—whom I still see and talk to, though not often enough.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that most of my old friends make more money than me, because I can make a tidy list of the borrowing I’m going to do in my later years. And I’m grateful that my newer friends don’t know about all those things I did as a kid. [See above]

Writer:
I’m grateful that I finished two books this year, one a novel yet to be published and one a self-published nonfiction work.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that the writer guy above finished that novel too; it only took eight years.

Writer:
I’m grateful for books in general, and just for being able to read. Books have been the spur to my imagination for as long as I can remember.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that with today’s memory, I’ve forgotten pretty much all the bad books I’ve ever read. And that I’ve forgotten that I’ve forgotten some of the good ones as well.

Writer:
I’m grateful for life itself, which I too often forget is an impossible gift.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful I can find shoes for my large feet. In fact, I’m grateful to have feet.

Writer:
Thank god for mashed potatoes. And bourbon.

Wise guy:
I’m glad we can agree on something.

Gratitude does change my attitude.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you out there!