Sunday, May 30, 2010

This is Depression (Sunday, 30 May 2010)

I can't sleep. I feel like I'm burning up and itching, like I need to get out of my skin. I feel my life is worthless and pointless. I have nothing I can say of any interest. I feel like I know things I ought to share, need to share, important things, but I can't say them. I feel my efforts are futile, my skills inferior. Even if I could share these things, who would care? I have no children, no future, nothing to survive me when I'm gone, nothing to work toward. I've lost my passion, my zeal, and now I write like a textbook even when I'm trying to describe the bottom falling out of my world.

Even as depression skews my perspective it also expands it to encompass everything. I feel there is no depth of nihilism and destructiveness to which humanity will not sink, which bodes ill for the future of life on our little planet. The greatest act of pollution of our age triggers not mass protests but mere dismayed interest, a shrug, a change of the subject. Like rats in an experiment, we are learning how to tolerate anything, no matter how bad. These are the steps toward totalitarian dystopia, one additional tolerance for the intolerable after another, until we lose the ability to react properly to anything that matters. How we have shrunk in our powers for good, as a species!

I feel that none of this is real, that this is a feeling, a mood, that has swept me up before and will sweep me up again. I feel that I know my way out of this labyrinth of temporary despair, but that it doesn't matter, that in depression nothing matters.

I thought at first that this was my emotional overreaction to my friend Mike's just criticism that the public journal entries I was writing were boring, but I've realized that this isn't what's causing my tailspin. I have a lifetime of engaging positively with even harsh criticism to back me up on this.

Instead, this is an unexpectedly powerful reaction to a loss of faith.

During my two-week vacation with my niece Elizabeth, I had briefly mustered a fragile faith in the idea that my nieces and nephews value me, want to know me better, need me in their lives. I had not realized what a change this was for me, to think that someone in addition to Beverly and Linda gave a shit about me. In publicly journaling, I was trying to write for them, for my nephews and nieces, the ones who inherited the demons of our family's past and wanted help in the emotional alchemy needed to create a healthy future for themselves. I thought that I could show the life strategies and meaning that underlie even the most seemingly ordinary parts of our day-to-day lives, how everything is connected, how everything matters and is part of a larger pattern.

But Mike's right. I can't do this. Where I should be telling compelling stories, instead my writing sucks the life out of the things I describe. My struggle for equilibrium, to thread my way through mania and depression without resorting to drugs, should be a powerful story that has meaning for millions of people who struggle with these twin curses - including many people in my family who I care about and worry about - but instead I reduce it to dry, boring narrative. Instead of the Midas Touch, I have the academic touch - every subject I turn my hand to collapses into intellectual dust.

Mike thought I could just skip the journal and get on with telling the stories that will make up the book I wanted to write, the story of our family and its astonishing struggles - he thought I could skip to the good stuff - but what Mike didn't realize is that I can't even try to write that book without that faith, that hope, which is gone again. It's funny, because in the entry "Journal" I even put my finger on this problem and explained the leap of faith involved, but I guess he thought I was writing for rhetorical effect, not warning about the fragility of the endeavor. Unless I have faith that this matters to my target audience, there will never be any of the interesting stuff written. It's a Catch 22, and not the only one in my life.

Well, it's done now. I doubt that house of cards is going back up any time soon. For now, I'm done with Verbal Medicine, and I'm back to writing only what I can't tolerate keeping to myself any longer (though now here in Live Journal instead of publicly), to writing what I have to write in order to heal.

I had planned to sleep my way through this depression tonight to reset my mood and start over tomorrow with a new perspective, but unfortunately in just a couple hours it has entrenched itself deeply enough to destabilize my sleep cycle. I can't sleep now, which is going to destabilize me further. Damn this delicate balancing act! It's frustrating as Hell trying to keep everything lined up enough for my life to cohere when it's so easily disrupted.

Still, it is what it is. This is the hand I've been dealt, and I have to play it. If I want to leave anything of value behind me after I'm gone - assuming that's even possible, contrary to my present mood (speaking of leaps of faith) - then this is the balancing act I have to stay on top of, no matter how frustrating it is.

Or Not to Journal

Well, after a week of experimenting with public journaling, I've been convinced to journal privately instead. I've moved my first six journaling entries to my private journal and removed them from Verbal Medicine.

I'll continue to use this space to work on the biography of my family (which if I write it correctly may be more interesting), but there's no need to inflict my day-to-day life on the innocent. I make no promises about how often I'll be able to write entries about the story of my family, which is a much more difficult subject to grapple with and may well prove beyond my capabilities. I may take a hiatus from this blog for a while until I figure out how to proceed.

Return of The Nap (Monday, 24 May 2010)

Monday the 24th, after my Songs and Nieces day Sunday, launched my week well.

I put in five hours of work taking care of Oroville Hospital for my nonprofit. One of the hard things about my job is how many things I have to keep track of as executive director, engagement manager, and project manager (not to mention programmer). I spent four and a half hours just reviewing where I left things when I left for my vacation, and another half hour reviewing the progress of our work on Oroville's Pharmacy package.

Beverly, Linda, and I ate sushi from Sam's Sushi in Ballard (well, I suspect Linda ate teriyaki; and I ate salmon teriyaki, salmon shioyaki, seaweed salad, and agedashi tofu; but I think Beverly had some sushi).

After lunch and after the Pharmacy call, Linda and I walked around Green Lake together to keep our exercise program on track and discussed Elizabeth and Wyatt (yes, we talk about you when you're not around). I told Linda earlier this year that any day I don't exercise when I should is a failure regardless of what else happens, and any day I do exercise is a success regardless of other events. With this in mind, we were pretty happy with ourselves when we stumbled up the stairs to the porch at my house.

When we returned home I planned to resume work, but life happened instead. What I didn't realize was that my work day was over and the next two hours would be spent on my body's needs, specifically, to accelerate its rebuilding in light of my ongoing higher exercise level.

When we got home, I sat down at my computer and did nothing productive for the next hour. I vaguely remember reading e-mail, Facebook, and other webpages, but I'm not entirely sure what all I looked at because I was semi-sleep-walking through the process. You see, my body needed to recover after the walk and it wanted me to take a nap, but I'd planned to work so I resisted. The end result, a groggy hour at the computer, made neither my brain nor my body happy. These are not the kind of hours you get to bill for as a contractor, since nothing of value takes place.

In the end, my body won, as bodies always do. After an hour at the computer futilely resisting a nap, I finally dozed off and slept for an hour. I felt vastly better afterward. If I only had a brain, I would have remembered then what I finally remembered this morning, that when I ramp up my exercise level I also need to ramp up my sleep - I don't know why, and I'm sure plenty of other people don't need to do this, but I've always had to do so, so I really should have remembered. But no, no brain, so I didn't figure it out then, which led to Wednesday's grogginess and Thursday's illness. It is not, in fact the thought that counts, since the road to Hell is paved with good intentions; the things we do or fail to do have consequences, such as my failure to increase my sleep leading to the return of The Nap as well as to a rocky and comparatively unproductive work week.

Your Aunt Beverly woke me up (with a start) at 5:22. My first thought was alarm that I'd slept away the rest of my work day, followed by the realization that I felt vastly better, but not the further realization I should have drawn, though I was looking right at it. I believe I may have made it as far as thinking "Wow! I feel great. I have to remember that I like naps," but otherwise my brain just did not follow that logical train to the important station with the big neon sign. I have a reputation for being a very smart person, but I'm saved from excessive pride by my overfamiliarity with incidents just like this one, in which I walk right up to an important realization and then stop just before it, sometimes repeatedly, before much later eventually realizing the big truth and that I've been staring blindly at it for weeks or months or years. The word "Duh" comes to mind.

Beverly reminded me I said I would review chapters seven (Skylands) and eight (Reunion) of Sunflowers, the Bella Sara book she's writing, so I spent the next hour reading and giving her feedback. A year ago Beverly made the change from being an editor, which she'd done all her career until then, to becoming a writer, something she'd played at being as a child but abandoned in her professional life until then. As an adult she'd always felt more comfortable making writing better than creating it from scratch. The empty page oppressed her, as it does so many writers. But now she's a writer and determined to learn as quickly as she can how to be good at it. One of my jobs at home is to be her training wheels, to review her chapters and help her find ways to improve it before she submits it to her editor. Chapters seven and eight were much better balanced than her early chapters. She's improving. The first five chapters of her book are published online as a free download here:

After the review we fended for dinner. I don't remember what she ate, but I'm pretty sure I ate breakfast: soy yogurt, and granola in soy milk. We watched TV, continuing our way through the backlog of shows that piled up during my vacation in the Southwest.

While we ate and watched TV, on Facebook I chatted with Wyatt for forty-five minutes. When I mentioned that I was reviewing Beverly's chapters, Wyatt wrote that she hoped to become a writer. I pointed her at this journal, which at the time was still published on my Verbal Medicine blog ( and she directed me to Ruby Moonlight, a wolf role-playing website where she's been prolifically writing for two years (

After dinner I browsed Ruby Moonlight and began to realize just how much Wyatt had written there. I quickly shifted tactics from looking for her stories, to scanning them, to cataloging them, which is mainly what I spent the next two hours doing. She's interested in feedback, which is commendable, but to do justice to her writing I'll have to study it and think about it a while.

That reminded me I hadn't journaled yet, so I spent the last two hours of Monday writing "Bipolar Judo" before going to bed and falling asleep around midnight.

I went to bed feeling good about returning to work, and about walking Green Lake, and about journaling, and about getting more involved in Wyatt's life, all of which are good things no doubt, which is partly why I failed to realize that the most important thing about Monday was the post-walk nap.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Salmonberry Mush Kind of Day (Wednesday, 26 May 2010)

Some days you wake up with an empty tank of gas.

I used to confuse days like this with depression, but they're nothing alike. On depression days, it's not just my energy level that shifts but my mood, and the mood is the crucial indicator. If I think I suck, my plans for the day suck, the world sucks, then I'm depressed. If I wake up out of gas, feeling like I just ran a marathon or stayed up twenty-four hours straight, then it's not depression; it's this other thing.

This other thing doesn't happen very often, which is partly why I don't understand it - insufficient data. Also, my cognitive skills are fine (if skewed) when I'm depressed, but when it's this other thing my brain only has brief periods of being fully awake. I had several of them today, but not enough to string together. So much for my plans to make a magic necklace of wakefulness.

Here's what I think causes this other thing: when I have been comparatively inactive for a year or more and I abruptly shift into a high-gear exercise program and drive my way back to fitness, which I've done several times in my life and am doing now, every so often I hit a day like this one.

My hypothesis about them is based on how much they remind me of my adolescent years, when from time to time usually right before or after a growth spurt I would be exhausted and sleep all the time. So my hypothesis is this - this is what happens when my body's rebuilding itself in response to the early stages of an intensive exercise program. My body has more reconstruction work to do, but instead I get up and try to have a day. My body disapproves and chatters to me all day long on my inhibitory nerves, but instead of having the good sense to go back to bed, I press on ineffectually. Eventually, I fall asleep again and my body goes back to finish its interrupted work.

In other words, although it's not pleasant and basically blocked my ability to work or do anything else constructive today, I think it's basically a good thing, a piece of the work I'm demanding my body do in my 2010 overhaul of myself. I'm not committed to this idea, but it's the best guess I have about what happened to my fabulous plans for Wednesday.

So what can you do with a day like this? This is what sick leave is for; I can't do any of my work tasks with my brain half asleep. Instead I slept in, ordered my brother Rob a Greyhound ticket to get to Seattle for Folklife Festival, read (a lot), went to counseling, ate three cups of lentil soup for lunch, walked around Green Lake with Linda in defiance of my grogginess and then promptly passed out asleep in retaliation when I got home, ate vegetable dishes from Genghis Khan restaurant for dinner (the mu shu vegetables in plum sauce are strangely delicious), watched the TV series Parenthood with Beverly, made plans to hang out with my nephews and nieces this weekend, and then discovered I didn't have enough gas in the tank to write about more interesting days like Monday or Tuesday, so I settled for writing about how groggy today has been.

Thrilling, right? No? I didn't think so, but from days like this you make what you can. They say when life hands you lemons, make lemonade, but days like this are far too blah to count as lemons. Lemons are exciting. This is more like life handed you salmonberries, whose flavor your great grandpa Fred aptly described as "insipid" (look it up), from which you get to make a bland, slightly bitter and seedy mush. Yay!

Incidentally, "Yay" is what little Navajo children say when they need to go to the bathroom, an appropriate response to salmonberry mush, which doubtless contains lots of fiber. Clearly, I need a new exclamation of joy. To avoid confusing anyone, I'll be sure to say "Yay" only when the bathroom calls. And perhaps when I'm about to eat a high-fiber meal. I'm sure that won't confuse anyone.

Good night, dear nice!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Songs and Nieces (Sunday, 23 May 2010)

After a good night's sleep and with my mood recentered, I embarked on my plans for Sunday with a will.

I was at Wyatt's door at 10:10 a.m. After family greetings all around, Wyatt hauled me back to her room to meet her two eight-week-old kittens, Ducky and Pie, who were obligingly adorable, meepy, and pouncy. I was struck by how clean her room was - is my niece a very tidy young woman, or had she cleaned the room knowing I was coming over? Or was it a coincidence; had I just happened to arrive after a rare room cleaning? This bears further investigation, I'm sure.

But not just then, because we returned to the living room to watch Lion King 2: Pride of Simba, which is among the better Disney animated sequels. Wyatt clearly loves it, and I enjoyed it too. She and I share a high appreciation of the value of our animal cousins, but for me there was an added charge; there's something about seeing chapters of your life coincidentally reinterpreted in public art that never fails to surprise.

When I was young, I learned the hard way a lesson about the ways in which good people will oppress you if they misjudge you as a bad person. That can happen either through prejudice against a good person or through failure to see the emerging goodness in someone who has publicly made mistakes in the past. Redemption, although a powerful story, is unfortunately something many good people block in their efforts to avoid having their trust betrayed again. It's understandable but it's more than regrettable. It can make good people the enemies of rehabilitation, make them actively struggle to keep people down when they're sincerely trying to be better.

Ask me how I know.

Good people in America rarely like to reveal the ways in which they can fall short of the mark, the ways in which they can behave like bad people. Our culture twists us into purity freaks, neo-Platonists (look it up), anti-miscegenationists (look that up, too); we want our heroes to be all good and our villains to be all bad, angels and demons - at least when we're not trying to pass off villains as heroes. What we can't stand is the recognition that everyone contributes to the problem, that the supposedly pure good people themselves help make the world the mess it is. Evil mostly comes from people who believe they are doing good.

The film fumbles in some ways, of course, but there are other good qualities to Lion King 2. We'll save those for another time, maybe another viewing.

When I returned home with groceries from Puget Consumer's Co-op (buy organic, buy local, and vote with your money), Beverly and I made lunch and started into our project together.

Around the campfire on the Navajo reservation the night of Wednesday, May 12th, Guitar Tom and Harry Walters played guitar and sang as usual, and I sang my two songs a capella, like last year, but Thursday night Anna Lee Walters encouraged us to improvise, to get everyone involved in the music, so after some fumbling around for the right format we settled on going around the circle and having each person sing something they knew. I discovered it's been too long since I sang freely and often, and I've forgotten the words of many of the songs I once knew. I also discovered that of the songs I do remember, few are songs known to many, songs that anyone else could sing along with. So on the drive home Elizabeth and I discussed the need for a songbook containing an excellent selection of songs to sing and the printed lyrics.

This was Beverly and my project together, which we began Sunday. Song by song we went through our music lists proposing songs to each other, listening to them, singing along, deciding which could stand alone without instrumental accompaniment, which had enough soul to them in a campfire setting. We'll be at this off and on over the next year, I'm sure.

As planned, we were interrupted at 3:30 in the afternoon by the arrival of Elizabeth and Raoul. Introductions were made and then my niece, her sweetie, and I headed off to join the crowds strolling around Green Lake. During that pleasant hour we discussed our past, our present, and a little of our future together. Elizabeth and I had talked extensively about her life on our vacation together, and I was eager to begin getting to know this man who's become so important in her life. So I did.

After our return and recovery, they headed back home to House Decided to clean up and prepare for Sunday potluck night dinner. I remained behind with Beverly converting three cans of vegan Indian food I like into an Indian stew I could take for my last-minute contribution to the potluck. As I prepared the food, Beverly and I continued work on our project, listening to and critiquing music for its suitability for our songbook.

Having arrived at House Decided in the nick of time at 6:30, I joined the household and its guests for two hours of dinner and conversation together. I was fortunate enough to spend time afterward speaking at length with Canth, the woman of the house, whose company I enjoyed greatly, but not enough time to find the opportunity to tell her how much it means to me that she and Raoul took in my niece and gave her a home. That will have to wait for another time.

When I returned home, Beverly and I finished off the day refining our first-draft songbook list. We still have a long way to go, but by the time we went to bed at 11:30 p.m. (later than I prefer), we had forty-five songs initially selected, including an agreement to write an original song together for Harry and Anna Lee Walters in time to sing it to them when I return to the Chuska Mountains with Wyatt in May 2012.

We still have a long way to go, but it was a good start, a good day, a good weekend, and a good note to go to bed on, with family and music on our minds.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bipolar Judo: Rolling with the Fall (Saturday, 22 May 2010)

If you work hard to cultivate a regular sleep cycle, your body will learn your rhythms and help you protect them. Though in my slight manic spike I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. journaling, my body woke me up at 6:30 a.m., which was too early so I rolled over and went back to bed, and then at 7:30 a.m., which I accepted.

There's a tradeoff with these things. Get too little sleep and your day is shot, so you have to decide whether you can afford to be less than fully functional in return for protecting your sleep cycle. If your immune system is like mine, another risk of inadequate sleep is falling sick - no risk at all but an easy recipe for bronchitis in my case if I let it go on for a few days in a row - but even I can short myself sleep for one or two days in a row without risk. Get all the sleep you want after staying up too late and you risk not being sleepy when bedtime comes. Six hours seemed a reasonable compromise.

If you're bipolar, the other risk of inadequate sleep is further destabilizing your mood. Since I was a bit up the night before and come from a family of rapid cyclers, I knew the odds were high that my mood on inadequate sleep would overcorrect downward, and so it did.

Knowing it would, I could prepare a little judo for it.

Some people try to fight the downward swing, but that's a mistake. It's not just an arbitrary change, an undesirable symptom you need to suppress. If you're bipolar you're swinging downward because you emotionally overextended yourself with your manic spike. Mania may feel good but it burns through your neurotransmitters and other emotional-nutritional reserves too quickly, leaving you depleted. Afterward, you physically need the recovery time; trying to keep yourself amped up when you need to swing down just results in a larger and more catastrophic crash later, so go with the flow to help keep it mild.

Some people just ride the rollercoaster downward revelling in the plummet, though many won't admit they do this. This is also destructive. The point of the drop is not fun or drama; it's healing. Your body needs to recover.

If you choose the golden mean here, a low-energy recovery day structured around what your mood and body need, you can gently recover from a manic spike without crashing.

So I took the day off from my exercise program to lighten the load, but ate nutritious food high in amino acids, essential fatty acids, complex carbs, and vitamins and minerals to help my body reload my neurotransmitters.

Another problem with bipolar days - spikes or crashes - is a lack of continuity with the days before and after. It makes it difficult for your mind to create a whole out of your life when each day is too radically different; the high days can feel like bizarre adventures and the low days like black holes, making them impossible to knit together into any coherent life story. The best days for trying new things are neither the highs nor the lows, but the ones in between, when your emotional baseline is most stable and therefore best able to fully accept the novelty as real.

For a post-manic crash, even a mild one like mine, I've found mild entertainment and mild socializing with a high degree of continuity to the day before and the day after to be the best recipe. It helps fight the impulse the withdraw into a shell - which isn't actually what you need, just what you feel like you need on a crash day - and it deliberately weaves the days together into a multi-day story, a whole, part of a life, not just disjointed events.

For the entertainment and socializing, Beverly and I decided to spend the day catching up on the TV shows we follow, which had piled up on our Tivo during my two-week absence. We watched The Mentalist, In Plain Sight, Castle, and Gray's Anatomy over the course of the day - nothing too emotionally overwhelming, but gently stimulating and diverting, and B and I talked over the episodes in between. We always enjoy disecting Hollywood's efforts to depict highly intelligent people.

For the continuity with Friday, I finished cycling through some laundry and continued journaling. I wrote Honesty as Faux Pas in the morning, which I greatly enjoyed writing, and then after discussing my posts with B added Nephews and Nieces.

For continuity with Sunday, I made plans. I called my sister-in-law Niki to catch up on life then texted all day with my nieces Elizabeth and Wyatt, discussing everything from family dynamics to kittens to silly You Tube videos to Navajo culture. By the time I went to bed (on time, around 10:30), I had Sunday scheduled up to be an active day. I planned to sleep in to recover from today's sleeplessness and from Friday night's mild manic spike, and then to use Sunday's activities to get me good and tired in time for bed Sunday night.

The little bipolar judo worked out just right. By Sunday morning I had my emotional feet back on the ground.

Considering how mild the manic spike was Friday night, this might all seem like overkill to the casual observer, but it's not. The way to keep bipolar in check is to stay right in sync with your mood, learn its patterns, and use them to help yourself keep an even keel.

There was nothing florid or dramatic about my ungrounding Friday night - those who let Hollywood define their understanding of mania would have had no idea anything at all was amiss - but after twenty-two years of therapy I know my patterns well enough to know that my oscillations always amplify over time if I let them. The trick for my emotional wellbeing is to nip them in the bud when the oscillation first begin, to damp them back down gently and naturally and recenter my mood so I can experience the full range of emotions without swinging my mood along with my emotions.

To put it more bluntly, if I keep my mood on an even keel, my emotions are free to range widely because they have a home base to return to. And - bonus - I can use my more clearly expressed emotions to help diagnose whether my mood is stable by whether the emotions return there or not, which lets me plan corrective days like this one for when they don't.

Days like Saturday are an essential part of my mental health, part of what keeps me fit for life in general, and particularly part of what keeps me fit for the work I do for my nonprofit, where reliability and consistency are crucially important. In my experience, managing your mood with responsible life choices is a far more effective treatment for bipolar than artificially damping down your emotions with prescription drugs.

Your mileage may vary, especially if you have a different form of bipolar than I do (type two), but this strategy has been working well for me for seven years now, and it's the first strategy I can say that about. As other elements of my lifestyle management approach come up over the days ahead, I'll point them out so that over time you can get a good picture of how I keep my life together despite the rollercoaster our family's moods predispose us to.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Honesty as Faux Pas

I avoided keeping a public journal for two main reasons. I wrote about the main reason last night, but the second deserves a little exploration since it will shape everything that follows.

Despite the CIA's motto "And the truth shall set you free," despite the courts' admonition to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God," despite the media's claims to show you "all the truth that's fit to print," we're a culture of liars. Our commitment to the truth is precisely skin deep. We're committed to the appearance of the truth, to the appearance of honesty. We strive to appear admirable regardless of whether we are. We're so concerned with controlling how others perceive us that the truth itself cannot possibly compete for us. The race is over before it begins. We're committed to crafting the message, to spinning the revelation, to shaping the truth into something much more to our advantage, that is, shaping the truth into varying intensities of lies.

Everyone in our culture does it, and we all do it all the time. And we do it so automatically and thoroughly that we often convince ourselves of the truth of our lies. Indeed, many people are deeply convinced that they are strictly honest people, because their commitment to their performances and delusions is so total that they can no longer distinguish the truth from the lies.

In such a culture, honesty causes problems. There is a price to be paid for the truth, always, but in modern cultures the price is very, very high. Here are three problems you'll have to deal with.

First, when you sacrifice for the truth, you must accept that society holds your sacrifice in contempt.

In the eyes of the law, no matter how hard you work to break free of the delusions and sleepwalking, no matter how you end up suffering for speaking the truth, the law holds you the equal of the vilest liar alive, just like everyone else. All of society's institutions, which evolved within a culture of deceit, are built under the assumption that you're probably lying, and you will be treated as such by government and corporations alike no matter what you do. Our institutions respect no one and nothing. They have the heart of machines, the soul of the abyss, and they act not from any human motives but only according to their rules, which change from time to time to benefit those who have the power to change them. If you want respect, you must seek it from individuals, not institutions; you must appeal to the person, never to the office. This is one of the unchangeable evils of the modern world. Unless you steel yourself to it, it will break your truth-seeking heart.

Second, even from individuals you'll get a mixed response to your honesty.

Most people can't distinguish honesty from deceit, except that in general lies have been crafted to be delicious and the truth is often bitter, so they'll tend to prefer the tasty tasty lies. You can sometimes get away with saying the truth around most people on the questionable but widely accepted grounds that "everyone's entitled to their own opinion," but if you try to push the truth on most people they'll push back, redefining you as "not one of us," not a part of the herd. In general, the herd won't attack one of its own, but if it can define you as a true outsider you'll be amazed how quickly your life can be put in danger. Never underestimate the danger of the herd.

So if you're going to speak the truth as best you can, you're going to have to cultivate manners, learn how to de-escalate angry people, learn how to mediate between angry people, develop your empathy and appeal - in short, you're going to have to make yourself as nice and appealing as possible to overcome on an emotional level the herd's sometimes violent antagonism to the truth. After all, in speaking the truth you're causing them real pain, so you're going to have to give them enough happiness and pleasure in return to make it worth it to them.

A few people will share your commitment to honesty, to the struggle to be true. These people are treasures. Be willing to turn over a lot of weresheep and werewolves in your search for these actual people, and when you find them make sure you hang onto them. I've been lucky enough in my professional life to find and work with many people who share my attachment to honesty and are willing to suffer some for it. Usually, though, you're lucky to have one or two people like this in your life, and to find more takes many years of diligent searching.

Also, keep in mind that even people who want to be honest have their limits. Most honest people are only willing to suffer up to a point for the truth, and after that point they just have to have the relief of more lies and lying to stop the pain. Hardly anyone can hear or speak every truth. You don't really know your friends and family until you know where their limits are, where their tolerance for the truth ends and their need for another hit of the soothing lies begins.

Third, honesty attracts crazies who make it their mission to stop you.

We pretend to have a commitment to free speech, but that's just another lie. When you cross certain lines - and everyone has different lines, so those lines are all over the place - you identify yourself as an alien, an outsider, an outlaw, bootless, a legitimate target for persecution, and some people with no real meaning in their lives will make you their meaning, will define you has a threat and make it their job to hound you. Although the compassionate truth lover in you will want to engage with these people, you shouldn't; every time you engage with them, you make them feel more alive and meaningful and reinforce their need to hound you to try to make their lives mean something. Unless you want to end up like John Lennon or Doctor King, you need to be on the alert for the crazies and always be ready to practice gently disengaging when you can.

Some of the crazies will be too subtle for you to notice. These crypto-crazies will identify you as dangerous and remember you, but they won't stalk you; they'll just calmly and persuasively spread stories about you to poison your social wells, to hinder you subtly from a distance.

There's nothing you can do directly about these people, so you just have to accept that this is a price you will pay for your openness and honesty - some things in life are just going to be harder for you than for friendly liars. You need to make peace with that and with the cryptocrazies and weresheep and soulless institutions out there. You aren't really being cheated. They can't help themselves, since they aren't really sane, and you know in advance that this is the price of being a truthseeker, so don't complain about it. Just decide whether that price is worth paying to become an honest person, and if you decide to pay the price then pay it as cheerfully as you can and move on.

For what it's worth, my advice is to pay the price because the costs of honesty, however painful, are finite, but the costs of deceit and dishonesty are bottomless.

Which brings us finally, in my overly wordy and cumbersome way, back to the second sentence of this entry.

Some people know about the choice you have to make in life between open honesty or secrets and deceit, and pretty much all of us choose some degree of secrets and deceits in order to get along in this world. Although like most people I self-identify as an honest person, and although I'm open about some things (alcoholism and manic depression, for example) that most people try to hide, I have my share of things I don't talk much about. I'm about to break my own rules for you, dear nice, and talk openly and publicly about some things I've kept quiet about.

The problem is this.

Much of our professional life is about role-playing, and in my life I play the roles of programmer, VISTA expert, and executive director. Just as with the roles people play in their sex lives, professional roles only succeed if people feel a certain way about you, if they can emotionally commit to the idea of you playing those parts. If I jar them too much emotionally, if I don't fit their idea of those roles, then they won't accept me in those roles and I will suffer professionally.

The most fragile of the roles I play is executive director, because I'm already a very unusual looking and behaving person to be running an organization. I came out of the closet about my manic depression and my family's struggles with alcoholism long ago, and I have long hair, and I have weird opinions about things, and I don't give presentations the way normal people do, so people have already made a lot of concessions to accept me in the community as an authority figure. No one thinks of me as any normal kind of authority figure. They're already making allowances and accepting me only provisionally or as an exceptional case. They're a bit too aware that I'm playing a role, whereas with people who hide more of themselves they more fully believe those people are leaders.

Other leaders are pretty aware of this necessary quality of leadership and work hard to groom themselves for the role, to be acceptable to people as a replacement parental figure. Experienced and effective leaders are usually the ones most aware that they're playing a role, the ones who are least open and honest about who they are but who can pretend to be the most genuinely present. Such experienced leaders are critics of the performances of other leaders and recognize a failure to act the role properly as a naive character flaw. That is, would-be leaders who don't lie sufficiently well are seen as at best immature leaders who will need to become better liars to reach their true potential, and at worst as people who will never really be capable of leadership.

To such people, some of whom I need to work with in the years ahead, what I'm about to do with this journal is proof that I'm unfit to lead. Most people think a real leader reserves his true self and only offers people the confident, commanding persona, the act, that proves he's worthy. To do what I'm about to do is considered an amateur move, like accidentally belching very loudly through the microphone at a State of the Union address. In such circles, excessive honesty (defined as hardly any honesty at all) is a political faux pas, so I'm going to pay a professional price for this journal.

It's worth it, though.

On a professional level, I will probably benefit as well as suffer for it. Engineers respect the truth and feel contempt for those who lie or evade to make themselves look better. Some of them will respect me more for trying to be a different kind of leader, someone who doesn't just pretend to be what they want but who actually tries to become that person with his whole heart. By showing who I really am and where I came from, they'll be better able to estimate my true worth and decide whether I'm good enough to meet their needs. That will give me an advantage over those they know are merely playacting, however convincingly. So I'll lose some ability to negotiate with the powerful, but I'll be able to work more easily with the people who really understand or need the software.

Sure, it's considered more noble to suffer purely for the truth, but life rarely works out that way. There are almost always benefits to striving for virtue, however imperfectly. The benefit of virtues is not a matter of opinion, which is what makes them virtuous.

On a family level, though, the main reason I'm going to do this is that you deserve it, dear nieces and nephews. You deserve honesty and openness, freedom from the tyranny of secrets, and you deserve to see by example that it really is possible to escape our family's cycles of shame and pretense. You don't have to be afraid and angry. As long as you're polite about it, and generous, and friendly, and careful, you don't have to hide who you are. You can be real with people and have them still like and accept you, even if they think you're a weirdo.

And because I'm doing this for you, I also get to be just that little bit more whole myself, a gift I was unable to give myself until I decided to give it to you.

See how powerful love is?

Friday, May 21, 2010


A few times in my life I kept journals. They helped me remember and process my sometimes difficult experiences and practice the art of writing. My older niece, Elizabeth, keeps one now, as did my paternal grandmother, Ann Saling, who wrote for a living, who taught me to read, who encouraged me to write, and who nurtured my love of this ancient craft. They both wrote about some very difficult experiences indeed. Reading their journals has brought me closer to them and helped me better understand the story of my family.

My friend Gary Tepfer thinks I should write that story. I'm slowly coming around to his way of thinking.

For a long time I thought our pains and joys, our political and religious arguments, our moments of brilliance and periods of madness and addiction would be of little use to anyone else, that they were mainly the grist for our own mills, for my family's struggles for sanity and health. Over the course of twenty-two years of personal therapy, though, I've learned lessons from my family's experiences that have made the difference in my life between success and disaster and between vitality and malaise. More importantly, these lessons have sometimes helped others who battled the same problems. Most importantly, every day in the world I see people suffering needlessly because they haven't yet learned these same lessons.

If I share my family's story, maybe some of you can learn from our sorrows and joys, or at least recognize the truth of them and know you're not alone.

For the rest of you, for those who think life is just supposed to pass the time as entertainingly as possible until you die, the ups and downs of my crazy family are at least as entertaining as half of the stories I've read. Maybe you'll agree.

In my life I've learned two stories worth telling that I might be worthy to tell. The story of my family is the first one. This journal will in part be my practice space, my story sketchbook.

The other part of this journal will be my remedial diary for keeping track of what's left of my life. Doing this is not at all easy for me. It is an act of faith, a suspension of disbelief. Without meaning to, my parents taught me early on that I'm unimportant and uninteresting; how I came to learn that will doubtless emerge over time within this journal. Horrified that I drew that lesson from our life together, they've struggled mightily for decades since then to unteach me that lesson. Even as I appreciate their efforts and love them the more for it, I've come to realize that some early lessons cannot be unlearned. I've been given the gift of humility (however imperfect), it seems, at the price of self esteem - a fair trade considering the hubris that plagues humanity.


In a nutshell, I don't really expect anyone to care about my life enough to want to read such a journal - I can't emotionally truly believe it - but I recognize that enough friends and family members have asked to be more a part of my life for long enough that I'm willing to take the leap of faith and try it. I do this partly for their sake, to be a better friend and relative.

My passion for journaling died with my hopes of having children, but it seems I have nieces and nephews who insist upon taking an interest in me. I do this mainly for their sake, because I love them and want to invest in their future by sharing my life more fully with them.

For those who fall into neither camp, those who find what follows to be just more noise taking up precious bandwidth, you have my sympathy and my genuine apology.

To use my blog as a journal represents a big change in the tone of this blog, but more of an addition than a replacement. I still love philosophy and will continue to write about it with the same frequency as before, but now the times in between will be filled with entries about my life rather than the barren desert of silence it has so often been.