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.