Down All the Days

For reference, last week’s blog post was a quickly cobbled together tribute to a high-school teacher whose actions changed my life. And as is often the case for me, my emotional reactions tend to follow later as the wave-like reverberations slow enough for me to track on them.

I’ve been down since hearing the news of my teacher’s passing more than a week ago now. Waking daily with a heaviness on chest and brain that happens when I experience a non-localized anxiety.

To summarize many, many thoughts on the matter, I’ve been contemplating my own mortality.

Hitting middle age does that I suppose, brings the end (or the generalized whereabouts of where you predict the end to be) into sharper focus.

I recognize the inherent selfishness of the response: I’m taking another person’s death—and another family’s pain—and making it about myself and my family. Recognizing the selfishness hasn’t told me how to dispel it, however.

I acknowledge that I have much work to do in this area.


There is more to write about the cultural importance of Anthony Bourdain than I can currently articulate.

Since his suicide just days ago, I’ve read remembrances and recollections that further colored in the man’s humanity. Many expressed better than I can his humble and humane approach to people, to food, and to places.

I need to have my say, though, and it is this:

As I’ve written elsewhere in my blog, I’m not what I’d define as a traveler. I’ve known many who seem to have that naturally-sourced wandering spirit that drives them to learn languages and to spend whatever resources they have at their disposal to visit the next place.

It has only been in recent years that a thirst for getting myself out into the world—to open myself to the experience of travel—has corresponded with my taking a job that requires me to weekly deal with the hassles and joys of being on the road.

Perhaps I’m too easily letting myself off the hook, but I doubt I would have appreciated roaming around had I done it more in my younger years.

Watching Bourdain’s various travel shows, reading his books, absorbing his simple yet profound message that sharing a meal with others is the nexus of culture: it’s where high meets low, where rich meets poor, where artisanal meets DIY. Slowly absorbing this message has opened for me a more expansive, and frankly, a far better world.

We are more than the sum of our appetites, but it is through accepting, voicing and experiencing those hunger pangs—together—that we share what it means to be human.

Let’s follow Bourdain’s example and travel far or wander close and take our place at the table.

All Those Smiling Buddhas

Although it is easy for me to forget, emotions don’t live solely in the nebulous and inner mindscape squirreled away behind my eyeballs. Emotions literally exist in my body; they manifest in tissue and viscera. There is an essential interplay between the physiological response to an event, and the feeling that generates from experiencing that event.

When I conceive of the mind/body/emotion connection, the ‘body’ component often defines itself as the movement of my limbs or the sensation of my deep breathing – you know, the typical practicing mindfulness stuff. Rarely, if ever, does the concept of ‘body’ translate specifically into the expressions that my facial muscles might make.

In Jonathan Kalb’s recent piece for The New Yorker, where he describes being afflicted with Ball’s palsy, a condition that paralyzes part of his face and prevents him from smiling, Kalb reminds us of the studies that charted how facial expressions feed our emotions. When the muscles in his face could no longer allow him to spontaneously form a smile, he states that he struggled to feel joy:

 “…emotions aren’t intangible phenomena traceable to an abstraction called the mind; rather they are responses rooted in physiology.”

In other words, if Kalb can’t smile, if his face can’t tell him what to feel in those blissful microseconds before his mind catches up and defines those feelings, then he has lost an essential aspect of the mind/body/emotion connection.

That flow always strikes me as intuitively wrong, that my smile or frown or grimace can tell me what to feel, but the studies Kalb cites in his article draw that exact conclusion – not only does my mind generate an emotion, my face can generate an emotion, too.

Kalb’s piece reminded me that I had actually been exposed to the science behind this idea more than a decade before. Where or how I read about the studies at the time is lost to the ether, but I remember conducting my own experiments. My first wife had left me, and although I wasn’t depressed in the clinical sense (my understanding of depression is a numbness, a lack of feeling, and I was feeling all kinds of emotions) I was definitely defeated, embarrassed, ashamed. As those who’ve divorced know, the public spectacle of a break-up is one thing, but the official nature of a marriage’s demise is profound – even if the divorce is the best thing for both people.

Anyway, while feeling generally unworthy, I decided to smile while I walked around town even when I wasn’t feeling the energy behind that smile. Doing this necessarily altered my normally slouching posture and forced me to move differently – more upright and with a more energetic step. Yes, I’m sure it was creepy for those who passed by the automaton with the forced grin, but the experiment did have an impact. Several, actually.

I paid closer attention to the expressions my face was making, and I discovered that most of the time if left to my usual inattentiveness, I was maintaining a furrowed, worried expression. Anxious lines were carving themselves into my brow and forehead. I hadn’t noticed that before. How often had that expression caused me to feel uncertain and afraid? How often had an anxious countenance told my emotion engine that I should feel, well, anxious?

Often, I suspect.

While smiling in times when I wouldn’t normally do so didn’t exactly translate to feeling happy, it did lighten my mood and it provided me with a steady sense of well being. In more recent years, as I’ve studied mindfulness meditation, several practitioners have recommended maintaining a slight smile while we breathe, while we allow our thoughts to flow past.

You know, like those many statues of smiling Buddhas.

I, for one, have focused much of my mindfulness practice on understanding how my thoughts distract and undermine me. Until reading Kalb’s piece, I had all but forgotten that the conduit flows not down but around; that my thoughts can be shaped by the responses in my body and, specifically, in my face - as much as by memory or preoccupation. It may be time to try that smiling experiment again. 

Creation Anxiety

As you know, I follow the One You Feed podcast. An emerging concept from the multiple guests and discussions over the past few months is the impact that Depression has on project-related work.

Specifically: Depression causes paralysis.

For those of us who willingly or unwillingly partake of project work (and I’m not just discussing creative project work here), paralysis—by which I mean just the idea of performing project-related tasks stuns us into non-activity or distracting behavior—is terminal.

We procrastinate, we crank our mental cogs, we keep ourselves awake at night, all because the idea of doing the work is a fifteen story tall, one hundred acre wide monolith that we can’t see over or around.

So we don’t do anything.

For me, being exquisitely hardwired for anxiety, I vamp on the above a little differently. When I bloody my nose against that immense project monolith, I don’t go into paralysis mode; I go into worry mode. The specific next tasks for the project—be they researching, drafting, holding meetings, or just getting my ass in a chair—blur into a fog of self-doubt and ceaseless self-talk about how I can’t possibly ever get what needs doing done.

The solution that Eric Zimmer recommends in several One You Feed podcasts is to break up the many tasks into smaller, easier-to-complete items. This gibes completely with the discipline of Project Management, whereby the Project Manager creates a Work Breakdown Structure and starts chipping that monolith into 8 hour increments.

8 hour increments function well for us in the work world, but 8 hour increments don’t (necessarily) lend themselves to our creative endeavors where many of us who are creating in-between our other life commitments are lucky to get any time at all.

So piggy-backing on Zimmer’s advice, find a time increment that works for your schedule and fill that time doing something/anything for your project. (In my case, the time increment is somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour) Even if it’s ‘draft Chapter one’ or ‘write two stanzas’ or ‘read about pudding wrestling.’ Make a plan; execute the plan.

Much of project work is giving yourself a sense of control. The way to gain control is to take action. Not action for the sake of action, but directive action. It is amazing how my anxiety level drops at least by half once I figure out the next few project steps, and I get even one of those steps completed.

There are aspects you won’t be able control, of course. I recently had a character emerge in the draft of my WIP who has upended my entire—MY ENTIRE—novel plot outline. Strangely, that’s not the part of the project work that’s frightening or paralyzing. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t want the work to transport me to places I didn't expect.

No, what causes me anxiety is all the spinning I do before I type one word. My anxiety begets more anxiety.

Every project has its own challenges; every project has its own lessons. There will be mistakes, there will be pain (hell, there will be blood!), but if we examine our fears or our collective paralysis, if we really look at it, we recognize that future suffering isn’t why we haven’t started. The reason we haven’t started is because we haven’t started.

So, even if it’s messy, even if it’s awful, even if it’s (especially if it’s) imperfect, let’s get started.

Fall of the Fisher King: Farewell Robin Williams

Others have eulogized him more eloquently and with more poignancy, but I can’t avoid writing about Robin Williams.

For me, Williams’ stage performances, those incandescent flights of furious delight, almost always eclipse everything else the man did. Whenever I read arguments over whether comedy is art, Williams is why the answer is a definitive ‘yes.’

My favorite performance was from the early 1980s when Williams was hosting a young comics competition (probably on HBO, although I can’t find the clip) and in the few minutes he was on stage, he transmogrified the crowd (and those watching at home) into a gasping, convulsing wreck. In a ‘normal’ Williams performance, there was build-up, escalation, and then as he wove connections that were always just right, transcendence. Then the man would dial it back so you could breathe again.

No so during this hosting gig. He had such little time on stage, there was no gradual uplift, there was only a brilliant yet maniacal assault that wrecked everyone (including the unfortunate young comics forced to follow him onto the stage he had just incinerated).

Although I had respected the man’s acting (especially in Dead Poet’s Society), I never bought him as a dramatic actor until 1991’s The Fisher King. Besides being one of my favorite movies of all time, besides the amazing magic-realism script, the superb direction, the anarchic set design, and the spot-on performances, what Williams finally managed to do was bring to film the same emotionally assaultive show of force he had up to then only unleashed on stage.

Terry Gilliam’s comments about directing Williams in The Fisher King are insightful. 

For some reason, upon hearing of Williams’ suicide, I couldn’t shake memories of Williams’ 1991 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show that I must have first seen around the time I watched The Fisher King. It’s not in this clip, but during the audience participation segment, one of the attendees lays out how Williams’ film performances have followed the trajectory of his personal tribulations with the idea that, with The Fisher King, he had finally achieved redemption, that he had finally beaten back his depression, his addictions, that he had finally defeated the Red Knight.

If only that were so.

We can’t know what finally drove Williams to take his own life. We can speculate that the rip-currents of depression had become too strong to swim against, that the seductive song of alcohol couldn’t be ignored, that it was in fact a diagnosis of Parkinson’s that pushed him to end it. Explanations in these circumstances are comforting at first but they ultimately don’t substitute for the person that we’ve lost. Especially a mega-someone, a wondrous human hurricane of a someone.

Robin Williams is lost to us. There is nothing we can do to make this reality easier to face. Sometimes, the Red Knight wins.

When someone of Williams’ stature loses a battle with depression and addiction, the event sends a message easy to misinterpret: ‘Well, shit, if Robin Williams can’t beat it, how can I?” But Williams was a devoted humanist who probably kept going as long as he did because of his love of other people. I have to believe that Williams wouldn’t want those who similarly suffer from depression and addiction to surrender, even if he did.

Defeating the Red Knight, then, is only ever a transient victory. A victory won in moments, not in days or in months or in years. Yes, we can fight our depression, our anxiety, our addictions for a time, but we have to acknowledge that we’ve only won right now. And the next moment may well bring another full-frontal assault against us, so we must be ever vigilant, and we must always stay strong. Always.

It can be exhausting.

But we must also remember the flipside: in those darkest moments, when the Red Knight has chased us down, and there seems no end to our suffering, the next moment may yet bring us back to equilibrium, may yet bring us back to strength, may yet bring us back to laughter, and perhaps, may yet bring us all the way up to transcendence.

Just as Robin Williams did for us time and time again.