Sunday, December 26, 2010

Feeling Good About Feeling Bad

I’m not sure if other people experience this, but something I’ve found to be particularly frustrating about feeling bad is the way it tends to make me bad. What I mean is, I feel bad over something, then it builds on itself, and I feel bad for feeling bad. And on the downward spiral goes.

A typical example would be when I try to remember something that I feel I should know. I’m not sure if it is my imagination, but my memory seems to be a lot worse than it used to be. I don’t have any memory tests to judge it by, but given that I am gradually getting older, have been dealing with depression and anxiety for some time, and didn’t have the greatest memory to begin with, it doesn’t seem a stretch that my memory has gotten worse.

I will try to remember something from the past, sometimes in response to a question, sometimes just because I am trying to recall a name or a fact for myself. I try to remember but can’t. Then I get a bit frustrated. I try to remember. I try to force myself to remember. It generally doesn’t work, and then I often go into a self-hating spiral of thinking, something along the lines of “Why the hell can’t I remember this simple thing? I should be able to! Why do I have such a shit brain?”

The same thing happens in large social situations, where I have always felt uncomfortable. I then feel bad about feeling bad, and sometimes leave feeling exhausted, thinking something like “I’ve been dealing with people my whole life, and I suck at it! I should have figured out how to do this by now! I suck!”

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. The word “should” tends to feature prominently, along with feelings in inadequacy, stupidity, and a general sense of being a total failure.

Although I am not quite at the stage where I am feeling good about feeling bad, I am gradually reaching the stage where feeling bad doesn’t make me feel worse. When I can’t remember something, where I feel awkward in a social situation or say something stupid, I feel the annoyance, but I don’t seem to feel the need to beat myself up about it quite so much anymore.

I think that I am doing the best that I can. I think that we all are. I am increasingly coming to believe that there is no free will that exists magically independent of the million things that have led up to the current moment. I think things are the way they are, and could not be otherwise. That being the case, “should” is meaningless. The psychologist Albert Ellis used to refer to people having unhelpful mental habits of “shoulding all over themselves” or "musterbating" and making themselves feel terrible, and I think he was on to something.

I don't seem to have such a strong need to "should" myself these days. I seem to have less stress and more acceptance of the way things are. I'd like this to continue into the future, and just maybe I'll find a little more peace.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


December is here, and Christmas is just a few days away. Christmas is supposed to be the time when friends and families come together as one and enjoy one another’s company, exchange presents, and maybe go to church if they are religious.

For a long time I’ve been ambivalent towards Christmas and other holidays. They have often been the times that I have felt most miserable and most alone. When I have felt the most lacking. And the yearly rituals are a reminder that another year has gone by in which I’ve failed to achieve anything substantial, while those around me seem to be speeding towards their goals.

This year, it doesn’t bother me so much. I’m still suffering from depression and anxiety, and probably always will be. Loneliness has not gone away. But I have made a lot of progress towards accepting myself as I am, and also in being able to try different approaches to dealing with my depression. There is no magic solution, but this year I worked extremely hard to keep myself going, and it seems to have paid off.

It has been a rough ride, but I’ve made it through 2010. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that I am more capable than I have ever been of facing it. For a long time I wanted other people to reach out and save me, and that desire, while understandable, was not really helpful. I did receive help here and there, and I appreciate it greatly, but for the most part I have made it on my own. In the end, I think we all do this – or don’t, as the case may be. Despite what we might want, no one can be there for us all the time, this is the way life is.

I think embracing the way life is, the way the world really works, is the key to getting through. When it comes right down to it, I don’t think we have much choice in life at all. Most things are out of our control, and usually not the way we would like them to be. The holiday season is no different.

I won’t be having a wonderful Christmas, but I will get through it okay. Maybe next year will be different, maybe it will not. Time will tell I suppose. Until then, I’ll keep plodding along the best I can. I appreciate everyone’s visits and comments over the 6 months I have been writing this blog, and I plan to keep writing it.

Well, that is about all for this week. I’ll leave you with what I think is the best Christmas song of all time, Fairytale of New York by Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you all!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

This I Believe

For a few years I’ve been listening to the podcast This I Believe. Each episode is a statement of belief from an individual, some famous, some just everyday people like you and me. It was originally an American radio program done by Edward R Murrow in the 1950s, and was brought back by NPR in the 2000s. Some statements I nod in agreement with, others make me want to argue with the speaker. But they are all heartfelt and considered, and they all make me think.

After reading one of In the Pink’s posts, I was inspired to write my own statement of belief. If you have the time, I’d be interested to hear what you believe in too.

More than anything, I believe in the power of the truth. And I believe the best things come when the truth is spoken and acted upon. Without truth, we have nothing.

I believe that all we are is a brain in a body, in the physical universe. No souls, no gods, no angels and demons. Just the world around us. And the world around us is plenty. In a lot of ways I think we trivialize the world when we anthropomorphize it.

Contrary to what many would like to believe, there is no skydaddy, nor guardian angels or spirits of our ancestors coming to save us. It is essential to realize that any saving will be done by ourselves or by the real people in our lives.

I believe that there are many things wrong with the world, and that to be a fully satisfied human being it is necessary to stand up and be counted when wrongs are being committed. I believe that the apathy, cowardice, and selfishness that I see so often displayed in the world around me is unacceptable.

I believe in treating others as I would wish to be treated, and I do this as much as possible. I believe that ethics do not require any supernatural backing to be valid. To the contrary, I find the actions of the god of Christianity in particular to be terribly immoral. A being of infinite capacity that needs to be worshiped by his puny creations, and who tortures them for eternity if they refuse? For a long time I have failed to see how such a being would be worthy of respect, much less be capable of generating a workable moral code.

I believe that in a civilized society we all have the right to freedom of speech, association, religion, and expression. This rights have generally been gained through struggle, not given from on high. I also believe that we have the obligation to make our voices heard as citizens, and to speak truth to power. For those of us fortunate enough to live in democracies, I believe that voting is a duty, not only a right.

Finally, more than anything, I believe that action is the only thing that changes us or the world around us. Talk is cheap. Thought is even cheaper. Action is the only thing that matters in the end.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Simple Things

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the simple things in life. There are so many things that we cannot control. The weather. The economy. The actions of others. Sometimes we cannot even control ourselves.

But something I have been trying to do in recent times is trying to keep my house in order, both literally and figuratively. While there are no magic solutions, I am beginning to notice that the tidier my house is, and the better I take care of myself and my surroundings physically, the better I am mentally.

Keeping the floor clear, my books neatly on the shelf, my clothes hung in order. Keeping the dishes cleaned, dried, and put away. Having my clothes ironed, even those like t-shirts that could probably do without it. Somehow, these things seem to help.

Having things clean and organized is nice and relaxing somehow. But also, the process of doing this has something calming about it. I don’t think I’d like to spend all my time ironing or cleaning, but spending some time doing it regularly is therapeutic, and almost enjoyable.

Another thing I have been doing recently is cooking more. I am not a very good cook, but there is something nice about producing simple meals, and not simply purchasing everything ready to eat.

Writing lists is also something that I have found useful. Recently CID posted about how he tends to waste all his free time when he doesn’t plan or structure it, and I am the same way. So I’ve taken to writing to-do lists on a more regular basis, and they are very useful in getting things done. Beyond achieving the specific things on the list, they are also useful in giving purpose to my time.

Finally, although it may sound strange to write about this on a blog, I think I have been spending too much time on the internet that I could probably use in a more productive way. Obviously I haven’t stopped using the net, but I am now limiting my use a bit more, and have cut down on my aimless browsing that kills time and achieves nothing. I have been buying and reading the newspaper more often instead, and I tend to retain more of what I read in the paper than I do from browsing.

I'm managing day to day, which is good. I am not sure that I will ever beat this anxiety and depression, that it will ever really be out of my system. There are times when it has felt an integral part of me, and times when it felt like an intruder. Currently I think it is probably a part of me that will never go away.

For the moment, I think the best way to go is to take care of each day as it comes with the strength and resources that I have, and try to learn a little something each time.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

In The Long Run

The sun gives ground to a long cold night,
And you screw up your courage for another fight,
But you know in your heart it’ll be all right in the long run.
--Redgum, Long Run

I’ve blogged before about the power that music has to transport us out of ourselves, if only for a few moments. For me there are many bands, artists, and types of music that can do that. One of them is definitely Redgum, an Australian folk-rock band of the late 70s and early 80s. They are unknown overseas, and in Australia they are remembered mainly as a one-hit wonder for the song I was only 19, addressing the experience of Vietnam war vets. But they had a lot of other great songs that have been sadly forgotten, one of them being the song Long Run.

Some have seen this song as a criticism of the stereotypical Australian “She’ll be right mate, don’t worry about it” attitude. But I interpret it differently. Gradually as time passes I am coming to believe that things will be all right in the long run. But not because of destiny or any natural fairness in the world. They will be all right in the long run if we make them be all right.

Looking back over the last few centuries at all the improvements that have been made in Australia and other countries, progress has come from struggle. People struggled for the right to vote, for the right to have decent working conditions, for the right to equal treatment under the law regardless of sex, race, creed or sexual preference. None of these battles are ever entirely won. But where progress has been made, it is not because of any immutable law of progress or divine gift. It has been made because many people paid with, to quote old Winston Churchill: blood, toil, tears and sweat.

I think the same principles apply in our personal life. For those of us who struggle with depression or another mental illness life is a challenge. Some people find consolation in religions of various types, a belief in destiny or a cosmic plan, or in self-help books like “The Secret” that say we just have to think positive and everything will work out magically. I don’t find any of these to be convincing. I’ve been an atheist for a long time, and I have never found that many results come from prayers or wishful thinking. In my experience, results come from work.

I think that everyone wants their life to be better, and that we all do the best we can at any given time. There is still a long road ahead of me to where I want to be as a person. But I am making steps down that road. I’ve taken many hits along the way, but I am strong enough to have withstood them, and I am gradually learning to accept myself and be satisfied with the progress I am making. And for the first time in my life, I am slowly beginning to believe that things will indeed be all right in the long run.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

If I Ever Leave This World Alive

Recently I heard the song "If I ever leave this world alive" by the punk-folk group Flogging Molly. I hadn't listened to it for a while, and it took me back to 2005, when I first heard it. I remember originally hearing it on an episode of The Shield, and being entranced by it. I remember going on a two day road trip with a couple of friends before leaving Australia, pestering one of them to download it for me so I could play it later on the iPod as we drove along the coast. And I remember annoyingly singing bits and pieces of the song throughout the long car trip. But mostly, I remember the friends.

Originally four of us were to go on the road trip; myself, an engineer and a musician (two old friends from high school), and a friend from Korea. Unfortunately the Korean friend wound up having to work on that weekend, so he only spent Friday night with us before we headed off on Saturday morning. But it was a good Friday night. The musician turned up on Saturday morning (having brought only the clothes on his back plus a pair of sunglasses), my Korean friend headed back to work, and the three of us headed out along the coast.

The engineer, had just come back from 18 months or so living in the UK, and was just settling back into Australian life. I was about to up stakes and fly off to Japan to an unknown future. The musician was already starting to get itchy feet and thinking about heading over to South America, which he later did. Australia is very far from the rest of the world and culturally confused, with a physical geography that places us near Asia, but a mental geography that places us somewhere between the US and the UK. This combination of distance and confusion, plus all the usual reasons people travel, has sent generations of young Australians have heading off overseas for a week, a year, or a lifetime.

Not too long after that trip I headed off to Japan. My Korean friend was called back home by his company, and while he often came to Japan on business, schedules rarely aligned. We caught up a couple of times, and climbed Mt Fuji together back in 2008. I had promised to visit him in Korea at some stage, but still haven't done so.

A few weeks ago he told me that he'd be in Tokyo this past Thursday, and we had a chance to catch up. It had been a while and we didn't have a lot of time, but it was great to see him again. We reminisced about the old days in Australia, brought each other up to date with recent events, and talked about what was going on in our lives, good and bad. It was nice. It made me think back over many things I'd forgotten, or not thought about for a long time.

At various times over my three trips around the merry-go-round of depression I've called on these friends, and each of them has helped me at different times, to the best of their abilities to do so. With them, and with others as well, I have sometimes been angry and frustrated that they did not or could not do more to help me. I thought angrily to myself on many occasions that people should see how much I need help, should be there for me more, should check in more often. Couldn't they see how much pain I was in?

For the most part, I have moved past those feelings now. I think that we are all as good as we are capable of being at any given point in time. I said the same thing in last week's blog post, but I think it is worth repeating. Dealing with someone who has depression or another mental illness is tough, and it requires an amount of energy and skill that most people simply don't have.
This is far from ideal. But this is the way the world is. And denying reality doesn't help anyone.

I am far from where I would like to be in terms of my situation in life. But I think I am learning and getting stronger. And harsh as it may seem, we ultimately be able to stand or fall from our own efforts. Others can help, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to many people who have helped me get through particularly rough patches. But at the end of the day we must stand on our own two feet. And I think I'm getting closer to being able to do that.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Letting go, and getting better

“Every man must look after his own soul; you can’t lay it down at another man’s door like a foundling, and expect him to take care of it."
--Anna Sewell, Black Beauty

I'm feeling better these days. I'm not jumping for joy or skipping down the street, but I am feeling gradually better. Life is manageable. It has plenty of challenges and ordeals to endure, and there are countless things I could probably complain at length about. But life is too short, and we only get one shot at it. And more than that, I really don't feel the need to complain as much as I used to.

I have spent a lot of my life, especially the last few years, being angry or depressed. Some say that depression is rage turned inwards, and I think that makes sense. I have raged against the world, against myself, against others. I have spent so much time finding reasons to look down on everyone around me, as well as myself. And then I've been angry that, surprisingly enough, people don't seem to want to spend much time around me meeting my emotional needs.

I am still a work in progress. But I think at the root of a lot of my frustration has been the fact that I've wanted to find other people to fill some gap, something missing inside myself. Humans are social creatures, and we crave human contact. And where the line between healthy need and unhealthy need is, I am not sure. But I have definitely spent a lot of time on the unhealthy side of the line. And what I needed, other people were not capable of giving. In hindsight, I think they recognized that, and moved away accordingly.

But I think there has been some shift within me. It has probably been caused by a number of different things. Part of it is probably diet and exercise, and forcing myself to get involved in more social activities. Part of it is writing this blog, and reading about the struggles of others who have been through similar things, especially Takashi. Mental illness is not something that one can openly talk about with a lot of people, and finding something of an online community of people who know what it is like helps.

And I am gradually moving closer to being okay with myself. I am caring a lot less about other people's opinions. I think I'm done walking on eggshells.

I am gradually feeling more confident in life, more accepting of my flaws and limitations. And I am able to see the flaws in others now, not as a reason to condemn them or look down on them, but just as part of their humanity. I think we are all as good as we are capable of being at any given time, getting by as best we can.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pale Blue Dot

Usually this blog is my thoughts, but for this post, I’d like to share something from a book I read at university that made a huge impact on me, Pale Blue Dot. It was written by astronomer, skeptic and science popularizer Carl Sagan, who also wrote the novel Contact and made the TV series Cosmos. In this passage, he is talking about the picture of earth to the left, taken by the Voyager spacecraft in 1990, now 20 years ago. The picture was taken from 6.1 billion kilometers away, and the Earth appears as a barely visible tiny dot.

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm on my way from misery to happiness today..

Well, maybe. Quoting The Proclaimers goofy 80s hit may be a bit premature, but I am gradually feeling a bit better as time goes by. Life is not exactly a barrel of laughs, but I feel some progress.

There are probably a few reasons for this. I think this blog has been helpful in giving me an outlet for my own feelings and opinions, and also it is a way to meet other bloggers who are going through similar experiences. It feels good to have some sense of community, even one as ephemeral as the online world. It is good to know that I am not the only one going through anxiety and depression, and having the chance to be there for some others is also rewarding.

Over the past six months I have also been eating more healthily and exercising more as well. There is no such thing as a cure-all for depression, and it is something that will probably be with me in some form forever, but taking care of what I eat, and getting out there and putting my body through it's paces is good for me. Even today we tend to have some form of Cartesian dualism, where we think the mind and body are separate things. This is not true, but it is a very sticky meme. Mind and body are two parts of one whole, and neglecting the body cannot help but have a bad impact on the mind.

I've also made some first steps towards accepting myself as I am. I tend to be full of self-loathing, always wanting to be better or different than I am. But I am what I am, and I need to just deal with that. I'm doing the best that I can, and beating myself up over being inadequate doesn't help anyone, least of all myself.

As well as that, I've come to realize that I am not quite as inadequate as I thought I was. I've been making some progress in life, slowly but surely. Previously I wrote about the isolation I felt when I went to see fireworks a few months ago, feeling so alone, isolated, removed from the people I was with. I received quite a few insightful replies to that post, but the one that really made me think was from Nick. He talked about how there is room for all kinds of people in the world, and no point in trying to be something we are not. I'll never be a gregarious extrovert, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is just the way I am.

Last night I went to a combined halloween/birthday party. I was coming from work, so decided to simply compliment my suit with horns and a pitchfork, and come as a "corporate demon", which people seemed to think was pretty funny. I talked to a few people some of whom I knew, others who were strangers. I talked to a variety of people, Japanese, Chinese, miscellaneous Westerners, in English and my broken Japanese. I wasn't the life of the party, and I did feel uncomfortable at times. I don't think I'll ever be really comfortable in crowded social settings. But it was much better than that night under the fireworks.

Life is a struggle, but I seem to be making progress, slowly but steadily. And like those Scottish lads sang, I'll do my best, to do the best I can!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

If You Don’t Fight You Lose

The title of this post is taken from an old union slogan. It was written about people banding together to fight for their rights as workers. But it works just as well as a truism for dealing with life in general. Life is a struggle, and we all have to keep fighting. In this post, I’d like to talk about a couple of fighters I’ve been following.

For a while now I have been reading the blog of Chronic Impending Disaster, an American guy who writes about his life, the music and books that he loves, and his experiences as a trainee Spanish teacher. Unfortunately, he has been struggling a bit, and is thinking seriously about pulling out of teacher training, and doing something a bit less stressful, where he doesn’t need to be the center of attention all the time. He is trying to see through this final week so he can get a partial credit. And he is doing this while dealing with depression. I’ve been through similar difficulties with dealing with work and depression, and I know how tough it is.

More recently, I started following the blog of Takashi Nakayama, a Japanese guy who is currently on extended leave from his job, trying to deal with depression. He has been living on a reduced salary for some time, and in addition to having to deal with the hell that is depression, he is now having to worry about financial stresses as well, especially the Japanese city taxes.

While it has not been easy, he has managed to get advice about what to do, force himself out of his place to deal with the unhelpful local city office, and is in the process of getting his financial affairs in order. Most of us struggle with budgeting and government bureaucracies at the best of times, and doing these things while dealing with crippling depression, without much support, is very tough.

Both CID and Takashi are fighting hard. They are not giving up. They are fighting each day with everything at their disposal to keep going, keep facing down their depression, keep dealing with all the problems that come up.

Depression is a terrible and isolating thing. But the internet can provide a way for those of us who lack enough community in our regular lives to find people we have things in common with. It is not a perfect solution, but life is not about perfect solutions. It's about doing the best we can with what we have. CID and Takashi are both doing that, and I am really looking forward to seeing them get past the issues they are facing right now.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tokyo Marathon, Take 2

“Never tell me the odds!”
--Han Solo, The Empire Strikes Back

The Tokyo Marathon is an incredibly popular event. This year, 294,469 people applied to run the full marathon. 32,000 were accepted. And I was one of them!

This will be my second time to enter the marathon. The first time was in 2007, at the first Tokyo marathon. I had signed up for it in the summer of 2006, when I was doing relatively well, and running relatively often. But as the winter of 2006 came, I gradually fell into the first of my three major bouts of depression. Among other things, this pretty much stopped any exercising.

By the time the marathon came around in March 2007, I was very out of shape, and still very depressed. But I couldn’t bear to give up. So I went ahead and ran the race anyway. The first ten kilometers were okay. The next ten were increasingly difficult and painful. And the last twenty were hell. Actually, I walked the second half of the race, and took six and a half hours to finish. Even walking was incredibly painful. But I ran the last few hundred meters to the finish line. I was in agony for weeks afterwards, but I finished it.

I had no interest in ever doing a marathon again. But this year I started running again, and gradually I have been getting fitter. I am still out of shape, but I am gradually getting better. This week I ran 15 kilometers for the first time since that day back in March 2007. Slowly but surely, my body is getting in shape. It is not all improvement – yesterday I went for a run and felt I had to stop after 4 kilometers. I still have a lot to learn about fitness, about my body and how to treat it well. But I’m getting there.

I have no intentions of repeating the self-imposed death march that was the 2007 marathon. I am running two or three times a week, and gradually extending my distances. I am trying to eat well and will also be doing a number of shorter races in the next few months to build up my stamina.

I completed the 2007 marathon, but I still feel I was defeated by it. In 2010 I want to make a success of the race. It will be hard, it will be painful. But I want to be able to run it at my pace, and run the whole way, not have to drag myself across the finish line. I’d like to finish it in 5 hours. And I’d like to finish it with a smile on my face!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sushi Oasis

Life in Tokyo can be exhausting. The city is huge and sprawling, almost a world unto itself. It has been the center of power of Japan for 400 years, and in that time has grown to into one of the largest cities in the world. 13 million people live here, and sometimes it seems like we are all crammed into the same train.

Much of Tokyo is a wasteland of concrete, steel and glass, with very little in the way of nature. Garish neon lights blast into the sky, pachinko parlors with their incessant noise are everywhere, and black-suited salarymen are constantly rushing around. Death from overwork is common enough to have a word to describe it (karoshi, if you are curious), and the city can be incredibly isolating, for both Japanese and foreigners alike. In other words, sometimes, it all gets a bit too much.

There are many possible temporary escapes from the stresses of Tokyo life. Alcohol and karaoke are popular, usually in combination. All the retail therapy one can afford is easily available. If a more personal consolation is what is required, despite prostitution being technically illegal, Japan is filled with brothels of various types. There are also many “host” and “hostess” clubs where those interested can go to be plied with alcohol and entertained by the modern day descendants of the geisha.

As for me, I prefer to go to a sushi shop.

I eat sushi at least a few times a week. When I step into a sushi shop, it often feels like stepping back in time. The walls are usually wood-lined, and when customers enter they are greeted with a hearty “irrashaimase!” from the staff. The types of sushi on offer are typically written in Japanese on boards against the wall, sometimes in English as well as Japanese.

In a standing sushi bar, the sushi chef will lay a bamboo leaf on the counter. Green tea is free, as is the ginger used as a palate cleanser between different types of sushi. Customers order sushi two at a time, which the chef places on the leaf. Customers come in by themselves, or in groups. Sometimes there is banter between staff and customers, but usually it is quiet. There is music playing, which usually seems to be about 50 or 60 years old. It is relaxing.

I prefer the bar to be not too crowded, but not too empty. Sushi is good for you, and eating it has its own little ritual. Lifting it with chopsticks, a slight dip into the soy sauce, and then into the mouth. If it is good fish, it often melts in the mouth. With each piece of sushi I eat, each minute I spend in the sushi bar, I feel a little more relaxed. A few of the worries of the world fall away, or at least recede from view for now.

If I’m feeling good, I usually feel great after going there. If I’m feeling down or stressed out, I tend to feel a little better. The food is healthy, and the environment is enjoyable. I step out of the sushi oasis refreshed, and ready to do battle with Tokyo once again.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bon Voyage

On Tuesday a friend and coworker will be leaving Japan and heading back home to Chicago. We’ve known each other for about three years, and had many discussions about matters large and small, eaten sushi many times, done crossword puzzles, been to karaoke more times than I can count, and climbed Mt Fuji.

There are many things that I will remember, not the least of which were his truly memorable karaoke performances. The highlights were definitely “Beat It”, “Baby Got Back”, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The stage presence, air guitar, and passion he sings with are really something else.

But these are not the things that I will remember most about him. Back in 2008, I was doing okay. My depression was under control, I had a girlfriend, work was going well, and I was enjoying life somewhat. I had just turned 30 and was relatively content.

Another coworker, however, was not enjoying life at all. She had a variety of personal and relationship problems, and was most likely suffering from a mental illness. She was a bit difficult to deal with, and most people, myself included, tended to give her the cold shoulder.

At the time, I didn’t think much of it. To the extent that I did, I basically thought of her as a basket case and wrote her off, hoping to minimize my contact with her, which I did quite effectively.

My friend from Chicago, however, was different. He tried to help, tried to listen, even offered her a place to stay when it seemed like she might lose her accommodation unexpectedly. I thought all of this was a bad idea and advised him against it. In the end, our troubled coworker wound up leaving. I’m not sure what happened to her.

It was not until later, when my own troubles multiplied, that I appreciated what he had tried to do for her. Everyone wants to be a good person, but when it comes right down to it, we tend to look out for number one. I, and the vast majority of others ignored the woman who was in trouble, not wanting to get sucked into her problems. To use the biblical parable, we “walked by on the other side”.

There was only one good Samaritan around in 2008, and it definitely wasn’t me. I’ll never forget that. And I’ll never forget the man from Chicago who did his best to help a troubled soul. Bon voyage man. I wish you all the best for the future.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


The last few years of my life have been particularly difficult. I have endured depression, anxiety, and loneliness so severe that there have been times I would almost have preferred that life not go on. I have longed to find a sense of belonging with others and acceptance of myself. So far, I have not succeeded.

I have been through three particularly nasty bouts of depression, in 2007, 2009, and 2010. This year was by far the worst, and while I am much better than I was a few months ago, I am still not entirely out of the woods. I suspect that I never will be.

The thing which hurts the most is loneliness. This has long been an issue for me, but it has only intensified as the years have passed. In the past I have tended to blame others and the world for my woes, but after a certain point I realized that I am the constant. I think that people are ultimately drawn to those who they feel will benefit them in some way, and unfortunately that rarely seems to be me. There seems to be something broken about me, and people realize this, and keep their distance.

That is the hand I’ve been dealt. I do the best I can. I would love to be sociable, always friendly, optimistic and happy. But it just isn’t in me. I cannot pretend to notice how unwanted I am and put on the cheery face that is apparently needed. My continual failure to be able to make and maintain real and meaningful connections is agony, and making it through each day is a struggle. I can’t pretend otherwise.

But I can take it. Despite how bad the depression, anxiety, and loneliness gets, I manage to endure. And eventually it lessens. Each time I learn a little bit more about myself. Each time I get a little bit tougher. Each time I am forced to find a little more strength within myself – and I do.

We all face many struggles in life. Regardless of our age, income, family situation, political beliefs, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, or health status, we all face different battles on a daily basis. We often face them alone, without the support that we would have in a perfect world. But this world is very far from perfect.

Through watching the Clint Eastwood movie, I recently became aware of the English poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley. The word itself means “unconquered”, and it is a poem about self-mastery despite difficult circumstances. The author had his leg amputated at age 12, and the poem inspired Nelson Mandela during the 27 years he was imprisoned. It is a truly inspiring poem. And while I am no Nelson Mandela, like the poem says, my head is bloody, but unbowed.

Despite everything, I am, and will remain, unconquered.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

World War Z

Zombie movies have always been something of a guilty pleasure of mine. I don’t watch them very often, but I do watch a couple each year. Most are disposable “so bad it’s good” type movies, while others are well-crafted comedies, such as Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead. A rare few, like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later are something really special. I almost never have nightmares, but I had one after seeing that particular vision of hell.

But the novel World War Z puts them all in the shade. Written by Max Brooks and published in 2006, it is done as an oral history. I like reading oral histories, and Brooks was partly inspired by his experience of reading The Good War by Studs Terkel. I haven’t read The Good War, but I have read Japan at War, written by Haruko and Theodore Cook. It consists of interviews with Japanese people from all walks of life, talking about their experiences before, during, and after the Second World War. It was an incredibly moving book, and it is to Brooks’ credit that he manages to conjure up something of the same spirit in a book about a zombie apocalypse.

The plague starts in China, which tries to cover it up. Refugees flee the country, and gradually the contagion spreads all over the globe. Government inaction and incompetence, apathetic populations, and opportunistic businesspeople all contribute to the situation gradually worsening until the future of the human race itself is threatened.

The world Brooks depicts is scarily believable. China’s cover-up is reminiscent of what happened with SARS, American military mistakes bring Iraq to mind, and Russia gradually lapsing into Tsarist theocracy does not seem a stretch at all.

But the true power of his book is in the memorable characters he creates. WWZ contains the stories of soldiers, doctors, politicians and many more giving their experiences of the war. An American veteran angrily explains the military disaster that was the battle of Yonkers, a Cuban businessman relates with irony how American refugees fled to his country, and an Australian astronaut tells of watching the world go to hell from the International Space Station.

Also, stories of how some great leaders were killed, not by hostile action, but by the awesome responsibilities of their positions, really ring true, bringing to mind the US president FDR and Australian prime minister John Curtin, both of whom led their countries during world war two and died just as victory was in sight.

A movie will be made of the book, and I am very curious to see what happens with it. If done right, I think it has the potential to be the best zombie film ever made. With WWZ Brooks created a real work of art, and I truly hope that the film lives up to it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Low Self Opinion

I know the self doubt that runs inside your mind,
I know the self doubt that treats you so unkind,
If you could see the you that I see,
When I see you seeing me,
You would see yourself so differently -
Believe me!
--Henry Rollins, Low Self Opinion

When I was at my lowest ebb a few months ago, every morning when I woke up I’d play the Rollins Band song “Low Self Opinion” to get my day started. The hard rock sound, and Rollin’s lyrics, which sound as though they are coming from someone who has been to some very dark places and survived to tell the tale, helped me get up, helped me to force myself to start another day.

I am definitely doing better than I was a few months ago, no question. I had fallen so far into depression that I had no choice but to try and radically change the way I was living. So I got more serious about exercise, tried some alternative therapies, as well as different medications, went back to therapy, started being more honest with myself and others about my state of mind. I cut back my work hours, and started eating healthier. I have tried to be of use to others. I started this blog. Basically, I did everything I could think of to get myself out of the big black hole I was in. And it has worked to some extent.

But when it comes right down to it, I think I still have a low self opinion. Very slowly I am getting better at being understanding of others, at putting myself in their shoes and not being so judgmental. There is a long way to go, but I am making progress.

But when it comes to myself, it sometimes seems I haven’t made any progress at all. I often feel a crushing loneliness, feel separate and unwanted from those I know. I feel ambivalent about reaching out to others, thinking that I am simply a burden, a buzz-kill, a drag. In the movie Strange Days, Angela Bassett says to Ralph Fiennes: “Friendship is more than one person constantly doing favors for the other”, and I guess that is how I feel about my relationships with other people. It is like they are doing me a favor, that it is some kind of charity work.

Essentially I feel alone. Unnecessary. And this, more than anything, is what keeps me in this depression. I long to be wanted, needed, included. To be part of what is going on, and to be accepted for who I am. But I can’t seem to find that. I never seem to have what people want, so I pass through their lives with barely a trace. I wish I could be the happy shiny person that it is apparently necessary to be in order to be included in things, but I can’t. It isn’t in me.

Sometimes it feels like I am swimming in an underwater cave, and finding social interaction and someone I can really talk to honestly is something like finding a small pocket of air. But then I have to plunge back underwater again, and desperately swim for the next air pocket. And I’m getting really tired of it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Slow and steady

The other night I went out for a run. It was a hot Summer evening, about 29 degrees Celsius (84 Fahrenheit). The humidity was high, but there was a slight breeze, so it was not too bad. In any case, things always seem better when I am on my way to go running.

I have been running on and off for about six or seven years. I have never been particularly religious about it, and have had long periods where I slacked off and didn’t exercise at all. These have often been followed, new-years resolution style, with periods of increased, unsustainable, and probably harmful exercise. Which leads back into inactivity. I know that running is probably not the greatest form of exercise. It can be solitary, it can be hard on the body. But I’m always drawn back to it. And at the end of the day you have to do what you love.

Generally I tend to go at things like a bull at a gate, which frequently ends badly. The same is true for running, I usually start quickly, which is sometimes okay, and sometimes not. But this night I decided to take some advice I’d received about starting out very slow.

It felt good. My legs gradually got used to the run, and despite going slower than usual, I was still running faster than most of the other joggers I encountered. Our bodies are designed to move, and there is nothing quite like running.

I didn’t push myself, I just listened to my body and enjoyed the run. I felt my feet hitting the ground, felt my posture straighten, felt myself breathing in and out. I heard the cicadas in the trees, felt the breeze running through my hair, and felt the relief as I sweated all the stress and toxins out of my body. I felt alive.

When I reached the end of my run I stretched, and sat to enjoy the moment. I have so many things that I should be grateful for, but instead I usually wind up feeling inadequate, like I just don’t measure up. So I push myself more and more, until I fall in a heap, physically or mentally.

But I think I am done with those days now. I am myself, for better or worse, and I will never be anyone else. All the self-loathing, all the “should haves”, all the pushing myself to breaking point hasn’t helped. Slow and steady may not win the race, but it can make the difference between getting to the finish line or falling by the wayside. Slow, and steady. And never give up.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Last Lecture

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
--Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch was an American professor at Carnegie Mellon University. As many professors are, he had been asked to give a theoretical "last lecture" about his experience of life and what he would like his legacy to be. But unlike most such lectures, in a sense it really was his last. He had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and did not have long to live.

When he started speaking, he glibly apologized for looking so healthy, and said that actually, despite the fact he was dying, he was in better shape than most of his audience. Then, just to make the point, he dropped to the floor and started doing push-ups.

I saw the last lecture back in 2008. Pausch was already dead when I watched his lecture, but watching him on stage, dying but truly alive, and hearing him talk passionately about life, made a huge impact on me. I was talking about it for months afterwards.

I have read the book based on the lecture a number of times. I’ve never felt able to watch the lecture again, but the book is something I have returned to over and over.

As the stunt with the push-ups showed, Pausch was a born showman. But he had also done a lot of learning in his 47 years, and was keen to say goodbye in a way that passed some of it on, to his colleagues, students, and friends, but mostly to his wife and three young children.

He spoke about many things. But the thing that struck me the most was the limited time we all have. We don’t all have a terminal cancer diagnosis, but we do all have bodies that will fail eventually. None of us know if we will live another day, or another fifty years. We can make educated guesses, but none of us really know if today will be our last.

In the past, health is something that I have tended to take for granted. It is only over the last few years that I have slowly come to appreciate it. The old cliché about how we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone is very true, and as I have gone through this roller-coaster ride of depression and anxiety, I spent a lot of time angry and frustrated about how terrible I felt.

But very slowly I am coming to appreciate the times when I am doing well. I don’t know if I will ever fully recover, ever be really happy. So I can’t base my peace of mind around that.

Sometimes I think about Awakenings, and how the patients in that movie were fortunate to have the recovery they did, even though it was temporary. Like those patients, I have to seize the moments I have and use them to the best of my abilities.

When it comes down to it, all life is temporary anyway, so even if my depression disappeared tomorrow, the fundamental situation would still be the same. Limited time, limited energy, large challenges.

In the introduction to his book, Pausch noted that engineering is not about perfect solutions, it is about doing the best one can with limited resources. Perhaps I should accept that and live my life with that in mind. It just might lead to me being a little easier on myself and others, and to a life that is a little more enjoyable.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I have tried so many different ways to combat depression. Ignoring it and soldiering on. Exercising. Watching good movies and TV shows. Reading. Cooking. Eating. Spending time with people. Spending time alone. Therapy. Medication. Meditation. Acupuncture. Massage. Keeping good posture. Trying to be of use to others. Working a lot. Working a little. Reading about depression. Reading self-help books. Writing positive affirmations. Trying to be positive. Ranting and raving. Listening to music. Singing. Writing poems. Writing a diary. Writing a blog.

Sometimes all this seems like an indication of how strong and determined I am to beat, or at least learn to manage, my depression. That I am responding to my problems in a way that shows I am tough and resilient.

Other times it just seems like a laundry list of distractions that I use to avoid the fact that I am a miserable and lonely failure. That I will always be struggling, always on the outside, always unhappy with myself. That I should just accept that, give up, and get on with being miserable.

But that way lies madness. And I am not too keen on that. So I keep trying new things. And sometimes they even work.

Something I have been trying recently is to feel gratitude. To appreciate my life, and the experiences I have. And it helps a little.

Recently, a friend from San Francisco suggested writing a gratitude list. But just doing this once didn’t seem enough. For about a year I tried writing positive affirmations each day. At first this seemed to help a lot, but after a while the effect faded.

So recently, I have decided to join the two ideas. Each morning, in a notepad I fill a page with the things about the previous day that I am grateful for, that I appreciate. These can be experiences that I enjoyed, things I achieved, or realizations I have made. They can also be about negative things too.

I wish I didn’t have to deal with this depression. But I do. I have tried ranting, raging, and despairing. It doesn’t help. So now I’m trying gratitude instead.

We all face so many challenges in life. We face a lot of pain, a lot of problems. This is a given. But I am gradually reaching the conclusion that responding to this with anger, resentment and frustration is not productive. I am also coming to think that it is the challenges we face that make us strong. Life is a struggle. But every day is another chance. Every problem is another opportunity to become a little wiser, a little more grateful for what we have.

And maybe, just maybe, a little happier.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Singin’ seems to help a troubled soul

Johnny Cash sang that in “Daddy Sang Bass”, and truer words were never spoken. There is something profound in the act of singing, especially singing with others. In the past this was much more a part of popular culture – after all, there were no recordings, so if people wanted music, they had to sing. Whether the music was a folk song or a hymn, it brought people together in a way that few other things can.

In the West, the combined rise of technology and decline of organized religion have had many effects, but the effect on singing is one that must be lamented. Increasingly it seems that music is something that is manufactured, rather than played, songs are things that professionals record, rather than being sung by everyday people. Music is something that we now passively consume, rather than actively create or perform.

But technology has not been all bad. Courtesy of Japan, it has bought us karaoke.

Karaoke often gets a bad rap, but it is one of the joys of my life. I grew up long after the time when families routinely gathered to sing together, and I was never a big fan of singing hymns when I attended church as a child. But with karaoke, I found a way to help my troubled soul.

I have gradually worked out which songs I can handle and which I can’t. My voice is rather deep, and not too melodious, so a mixture of punk, rap, rock, and country is what I can handle best. As I sing a song more often, it gradually improves, and I enjoy it more and more. One of the songs I began singing recently is the old House of Pain hit Jump Around. I get a real kick out of singing it (and jumping around!) as do the friends I have been to karaoke with.

Apart from singing songs I like, one of the reasons I like karaoke so much is listening to the songs others have mastered and made their own. Many Japanese are good singers due to hours of practice, and more than a few foreigners can impress on the mic too. The guy from Chicago who sings an impassioned version of Beat It, complete with funky dance moves. The guy from Portland who sings everything from The Crash Test Dummies to Duran Duran, and I will never forget our combined version of Pretty Vacant. The English girl from Birmingham who performs Japanese ballads so beautifully it seems she was born to sing them. And the girl from San Diego who can sing in English, Spanish, and increasingly well in Japanese.

Singing doesn’t fix depression. But it certainly helps to alleviate it. Back in the 70s the famous music critic Lester Bangs wrote that rock music was “time off from the world.” I think that goes for music in general. The worries will still be there when the music is over. But for a few brief moments we are taken out of ourselves and elevated to something more. I am not religious, but there is something spiritual there. That is what music can do. And that is why I will always love karaoke.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Into the Wild

Christopher McCandless was a 22-year old American university graduate from a well-to do family. In 1990 he moved out of his apartment, gave away all his money, cut off all contact with his family and everyone he knew, and set off across the US on a grand adventure. He spent two years wandering all over the country. He was an intelligent and gifted young man, who made quite an impact on the people who met him. Jon Krakauer wrote a fine book about him, which was later made into a great film.

McCandless had strong convictions and very high standards. He clashed constantly with his parents. He was a good student, a great athlete, and was also musically gifted. He had the intelligence to follow whatever career he wanted in life. Instead, inspired by books and high ideals, he answered the call of the wild.

He wanted to live free from his parents, from society, to be uncompromised by rules and conventions he didn’t approve of. To challenge himself and truly live in nature, instead of just existing in a world he saw as being plastic and fake.

He did all these things. And then he died. He starved to death, alone in a rusting bus in Alaska. He was 24.

I am not Chris McCandless by any stretch of the imagination. But I recognize something of myself in him, and something of my time in Japan in his two-year odyssey across America.

Like him, I love books and reading. Like him, I can be stubborn, and I have an idealistic streak that doesn’t always fit so well into the real world. Like him, I had issues that contributed to me moving very far away from home, in my case all the way from Australia to Japan.

Of course, Tokyo is not Alaska. But although my time in Japan has been far from the kind of adventure that Chris McCandless experienced, it has been similar in that it is here that I have experienced both the best and worst times of my life. There have been times when my whole being has been filled with happiness, times that I have been more alive than ever before. Times when I have truly lived.

There have also been times that I wanted to die. Times when I felt so low, so self-loathing and negative, so isolated and alone that I didn’t want to go on. Times when I would have preferred to simply not wake up in the morning. To sleep forever rather than face another day.

In the time since I came to Japan I have been up and down several times, with three major bouts of depression. Each time, it got a bit worse. The last time, three months ago, was by far the worst.

I am not sure what lies ahead of me when I return to Australia. I am not sure what I will do for work, where I will live. Moving locations does not change a person. But Japan does not seem to be so good for me. I am glad that I came here, glad that I had my equivalent of a grand adventure. But I think it is time to head home.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Alone in a crowd

You tried so hard to understand them
You wanted to be part of what was happening
You saw them having fun
And it seemed like such a mystery
Almost magic.

--Henry Rollins, I Know You

During Summer there are many fireworks displays all across Japan, and attending them is a popular pastime. The Japanese have been doing this for around 300 years now, and even today, many of the people who attend don traditional Summer clothes, yukata for women, and jinbei for men. Couples, families, groups of friends will wander down to the parks, beaches, and riversides of Japan, eat, drink, socialize, fan themselves with sensu or uchiwa, hear the cicada sing and watch the fireworks.

Recently I was invited to watch some fireworks. Our group was probably about 15 people altogether, and I knew two of them. The story of this night, at least from my view, is pretty much the story of every large social event that I have attended since childhood.

I tend to find most social situations uncomfortable, but especially those with large groups of people. In Japan the language issue makes things more complicated, as my level of Japanese is not anywhere near as good as it should be after four years here, and of course, when I am not confident, it gets worse.

But to put too much blame on the language misses the point. The way I feel, and the way things tend to play out, have been the same for decades. I tend to have a couple of people I feel somewhat comfortable talking with, and spend a lot of time, too much time, talking with them when they'd probably much rather be talking with other people.

I have brief, uncomfortable conversations with people I don’t know so well, or don’t know at all, and after exchanging pleasantries and making some small talk the other person tends to find that they need to be elsewhere. They sense something wrong and move on. As the time goes by I feel increasingly uncomfortable.

I watch the other people talk with each other, telling jokes or stories, seeing the charismatic ones hold court, see people mingling, watching strangers gradually become comfortable with each other, find things in common, see friendships begin, watch people click with each other.

I know all of these people have their problems. We all do. Perhaps they have problems with money, or alcohol, or gambling. Maybe they are unhappy at work, or they can’t find a job. It could be they have problems with their family or their sexuality. Maybe their relationship is not going well, or maybe they don’t have one. Maybe they are trying to get over a broken heart. Perhaps they have some kind of serious illness, or are worried about their future. We are all struggling with something.

But they seem to manage, and put things to the side, at least for the moment. I don’t. For as long as I can remember, the times when people come together tend to be the worst times. I often tend to find myself alone, feeling that I am so lonely that I could die from it. Or, I tend to find myself in social situations that are excruciatingly painful, waiting for it to be over, wishing that I had not bothered, and just stayed at home.

So, I find myself between a rock and a hard place. And I can’t really see any way this will change. I used to blame the world, blame other people. And I still do sometimes. But for the most part I have come to recognize that I am the cause of my unhappiness. I think I have always tried the best that I could, whether at a backyard party or family Christmas in Australia or under the glow of fireworks in Japan. But unfortunately, my best is not good enough.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sayonara Mt Fuji

One would be a fool never to climb Mt Fuji – but also a fool to climb it twice.
--Traditional Japanese expression

Based on this expression, I am quite a fool. This week I climbed Mt Fuji for the sixth time. It has been an annual event for me during my time in Japan. Mt Fuji is beautiful on postcards, but for climbers it is a long dusty slog. The half-way point where most climbers start is at the tree line, and above that the mountain is a volcanic wasteland. I am always reminded of pictures of Mars.

The first few times I climbed I was invited. But eventually I started organizing the trips myself. Something kept drawing me back. With around 200,000 climbers a year, Mt Fuji is not exactly the road less traveled. But for me, there is something special there. The way there is something spiritual about it, despite the crowds and the commercialism. The physical challenge. Helping each other make it through the climb. The chance of a beautiful sunrise.

And the fact that none of us belong there.

Japan can be an isolating place to live, especially as a foreigner. But despite its important place in Japanese culture, everyone is a stranger to Mt Fuji, Japanese included. All of us are focused on making it up the mountain. And despite the exertion and sometimes strained tempers, people seem more open somehow.

This week’s climb was pretty simple and straightforward. The weather was good, we had no injuries or major problems, and my physical condition is better than it has been for a while. The sunrise was beautiful. And apart from tired legs I felt fine afterwards, unlike some other times.

But more than anything, this climb felt like a goodbye to Mt Fuji. As we climbed up the popular Yoshida trail, I remembered all the people I have climbed with, people from Australia, Korea, Uzbekistan, the US, the UK, Japan, and Mexico. I remembered the deep and meaningful conversations, the arguments, the jokes. The mock swordfights with hiking sticks. And that time I decided sprinting down the mountain would be a good idea, resulting in an unexpected forwards somersault. Fortunately I walked away with injuries only to my pride.

Coming from a country whose history spans barely more than 200 years, one of the things I have always found fascinating about Japan is the length of its traditions. In the case of Mt Fuji, Japanese have been climbing it since at least the 9th century AD. And it has been a privilege to take part in it. Whatever the ups and downs of my life in Japan, I have always known that Mt Fuji was there waiting for next year.

But now, it seems likely that my time in Japan is coming to an end, and next Summer there will be one less climber. That makes me a little sad. But all good things must come to an end. Even for Fuji-loving fools.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Goodbye Harvey Pekar

"It makes you feel good to know that there's other people afflicted like you."
--Harvey Pekar

Harvey Pekar died this week. File clerk, music critic, comic book author and quite a grumpy guy, he passed away at home. He was 70 years old.

Like a lot of people, I first heard of him because of the 2003 film American Splendor, based on his long running comic series. It covered his life as a file clerk in a VA hospital in his hometown Cleveland, his relationships, money troubles, struggles with cancer, loneliness and depression, among other things.

In a way his comic was like a blog, long before such things existed. He recounted incidents from his daily life, his failures, frustrations and sufferings. For a very long time his comics didn’t sell very well, but he kept at it, year after year. He told stories about the books he read and the music he loved, about his days at work, his experiences with dating and relationships.

He said: “Essentially all I've wanted this to be is a journal of a life, because I think that sort of thing is worth recording.” I agree. Lives are worth recording. And what Harvey Pekar showed us was a new way to record a journal of an everyday person’s life.

I liked his comics, and have read or own most of them. But it was the film of his life that made the biggest impact on me.

A month or so ago, when I was going through my worst bout of depression ever, I watched it again. I can’t say that it cleared my depression away – no film, no book, no song, can do that. But watching Paul Giamatti as Harvey work his way through life as best he could really helped. Watching Harvey’s struggles definitely made a difference to me.

I think that good art is always good for the soul. As a film, American Splendor is very intelligent, with heart, artistry, and honesty. And from what I could tell, that summed up Harvey Pekar pretty well too.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Black Beauty

They say that youth is wasted on the young. That may be so, but based on my reading of the last few weeks, so-called children’s books are also wasted on the children! I am glad I have returned to reading.

After following Buck's adventures in The Call of the Wild, I moved onto Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, another classic that I had never read before. Sewell, an English invalid who cared deeply about the horses she depended on for mobility, paints a vivid picture of 19th century English life from a horse’s eye point of view, from the lush country estates of the aristocracy to the crowded and poverty-stricken streets of Victorian London.

Whereas Buck could eventually flee human society to follow the call of the wild, Black Beauty, like most of us, has no such option. Although raised in great comfort, as time goes by he must toil under a variety of good, bad, and indifferent masters. He has almost no control over his circumstances, but endures as best he can.

In The Call of the Wild, Buck forms a strong bond with one of his many masters, John Thornton. The parallel in Sewell’s novel is Jerry Barker, a hardworking cab driver who owns Black Beauty for some years. Jerry is a thoroughly decent man, who treats his horses, family, and fellow drivers with dignity and good humor.

The world depicted in the book, however, is often far from decent. There is a great deal of cruelty and suffering to be found, much of it driven by ignorance, selfishness, or the dictates of economics. The latter are especially harsh, and result in both horses and men being worked to death for the sake of a few coins.

Sewell was raised as a Quaker, and remained religious throughout her life. Several versions of the good Samaritan story occur, and Sewell is clear in her conviction that we all have a moral obligation to do right, and that to do nothing when wrong is being done is to condone it.

Sewell wrote the book primarily in the hope that its publication could improve the treatment of horses. She paints a vivid picture of the sufferings of the "dumb animals", a worthy goal, but beyond that her novel is a clarion call for decency in general. I am glad that I read it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Blood, toil, tears, and sweat

Winston Churchill was a remarkable man. He stood stubbornly, almost irrationally firm and resolute when it looked like all was lost and the enemy would be triumphant. He refused to consider surrender.

During some very dark days he said: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory – victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”

Churchill was speaking in the grim days of 1940, referring to the struggle against Nazi Germany, but his words could equally well refer to the battle with depression, another battle that he was intimately familiar with. He fought it throughout his life, referring to it as his “black dog”. It is to the great benefit of the world in general that he didn’t submit to it, but fought it as stubbornly as he fought against fascism.

Fighting depression is a struggle. It is painful. It is protracted. And it is necessary. It is necessary because, as Churchill said, if there is no victory, there is no survival. Depression will kill if it is allowed to.

It may seem trite to compare any one person’s personal struggle for mental wellbeing with the global fight against fascism. But anyone who has experienced the depths of despair, pain, and hopelessness that depression brings will be aware just how formidable a foe depression can be. There are times it seems hopeless, when the depression seems just too strong, times when it seems like it would be so much easier to just give in.

But don’t. Stand firm. Set your jaw. Look depression square in the face. And give it the two-finger salute just like old Winston did.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Call of the Wild

Since I started reading again recently I have been reading shorter books that are easier to concentrate on, given the difficulties with memory and concentration that come with depression. I was motivated to read The Call of the Wild by Jack London partly because of it’s length, and partly because I saw Sean Penn’s moving film Into the Wild, the story of Christopher McCandless’ ill-fated adventures. London was apparently one of McCandless’ favorite authors.

London, along so many others, went to the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s. He came away with empty pockets, but a rich store of memory and experience to use in his writing.

"The Call of the Wild" tells the story of Buck, a Saint Bernard-Border Collie cross who is stolen from a comfortable life in California, to be sold into servitude as a sled dog. He is strong and intelligent, and manages to become a superb sled dog, before eventually becoming totally wild, eventually joining a wolf pack. The contrast of the harsh purity of the wild with the corrupt and troubled world of men, and the call of the wild that Buck eventually follows, obviously resonated with McCandless, a man in search of liberation from what he saw as a hopelessly compromised society.

But perhaps McCandless should have noted more carefully that as well as this veneration of nature and struggle that runs through the book, London is also clear that nature is Darwinian. Not everyone is going to make it. Buck is strong in body and spirit and manages to endure, but the other characters in the book, whether man or dog, usually don’t survive the wilderness or their own weaknesses. This is not written emotionally, just stated as a fact.

The wild is beautiful and where we are most alive, because success means to live more intensely than is possible elsewhere. But failure means death. And those who journey there will be tried and tested. Some will make it, and many will not.

As someone who struggles daily wondering if I will make it or not, it is a harsh message. But it rings of the truth. We are all tried and tested, and many of us are found wanting. I am no Buck. I can’t see myself leading the pack. But I hope I have the strength within me to endure.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Depressed Reader

Depression is not so fun. It is also not so rare. Although there are many recorded cases of depression throughout history, it does seem to be more prevalent in the modern era.

Many of us out there struggle with depression, or know those who do. There are many possible ways to struggle with it, exercise, therapy, medication, alternative medicine, prayer, reaching out to family and friends, and many others. Pulling the blanket up over one’s head and hoping it will all go away is another popular one. I’ve tried all of the above, and the struggle is ongoing.

I have always been a voracious reader, from when I was very young I was always reading a few books at the same time. But in the last few years, as I have gone in and out of depression, I found that I read less and less. It happened gradually, and I didn’t even realize.

During my most recent bout of depression, probably the worst so far, I realized that the amount I read had gradually gone down over the last few years. One of the many effects of depression is that it robs of pleasure in things we would usually enjoy. It also effects memory and concentration, and so when I somehow found myself wandering down to my local library, I was drawn to the classics section, to the shorter classic books. Some of which I had read during my childhood, some of which I had never read. I picked up “Treasure Island”, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and my love of books was rediscovered. This was a few weeks ago.

I thought it might be a good idea to focus on something positive. In this blog I plan to write some short-ish posts on the books that I read, my impressions, and what I get out of them. I hope you enjoy them. The first post will be about “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London.