Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Dark Days

            One of my favorite movie moments occurs in Jules and Julia when Meryl Streep’s Julia Childs, having encountered some sort of setback, says, “Boo-hoo. Now, what?” I love the self-mockery of “Boo-hoo” and the pragmatism of “Now, what?”

            But still – we all have dark days, don’t we? When things are good, which is most of the time, the dark days of the past appear to have been seen through a gray veil that masks the reality of a blessed life. But when a dark day comes, the image is reversed, and it seems that now our bleak reality is clear and true, once the veil of happiness no longer blinds and misleads. “At last,” we say, “I see the truth.” It’s not a happy truth. In fact, it’s probably not true, either.

            I don’t write “self-help,” a genre that contradicts itself because the author is helping you as you read. But I can suggest how I move from “Boo-hoo” to “Now, what?”

            What are my triggers of darkness? What do I do about it?

·      The realization that I am getting old. A lot has been said about this, but suffice it to say that health declines, sometimes suddenly, otherwise gradually, friends die, blah blah blah. Memory fogs up: I’m not sure I remembered the Julia Childs quote correctly. So when Kim and I are thinking about where to live next, one factor we consider only half-jokingly is whether the state allows assisted suicide. Now, what? Go for a walk with a friend. The exercise is good for me and the friendship, in my case with Kim, reminds me of what’s worth living for. And sometimes, like a minute ago, you receive news that your biopsy is negative.

·      Christmas. The season’s high expectations lead to pressure, which leads to stress, which leads to melt-downs, which lead to dark days. Boo-hoo. Now, what? We are in control of our expectations (to an extent), we can laugh at predictable crises, and holiday stress evolves into a much less stressful Groundhog Day. I try to focus on enjoying what I do rather than what is done to me, or not done for me, in the holiday season.

·      Television and Movies. On the screen we see families resolving their problems, couples finding full expression for their feelings, or heroes coming to terms with their shortcomings and losses – all doing much better than I do. These people all have scriptwriters who revise and revise, and actors get to practice their lines. I don’t. Now, what? I lower my expectations. My language will fail, my feelings not clear, the problems not resolved. I hope the failure will be comic, not tragic. And given time, I try to become my own scriptwriter.

·      Degradation of the planet. Global warming, oil spills, loss of habitat, etc., due to greed, selfishness, ignorance and stupidity. Now, what? I recognize that problem is not, primarily, a product of my own dark mood but rather what’s wrong with other people – those who share my selfishness, stupidity, etc. So I simply do what I can to help, from recycling to changing light bulbs to our family’s owning only one car. My votes and contributions are environment-based. I leave my windows closed in the winter to prevent warming the planet. I also try not to spill any oil.

·      The decline of civilization. Old people have been complaining about this for centuries, probably dating back to the 5th Century B.C.E. Greeks. It’s what old people do. Boo-hoo. Now, what? I turn off the news and try to think small without worrying about civilization, except when I vote or donate to various causes, mainly environmental.

·      Donald Trump.

·      Anger. I go to a dark place whenever someone it angry with me. This is bad enough when I don’t deserve it, but even worse when I do. Now, what? I do remember one time when Kim was angry with me about something or other and I was angry with her for being angry with me. “I hate feeling this way,” I told myself. So I decided to stop feeling that way. It worked, almost instantly. Doesn’t always work for me, unfortunately, but I sometimes use a Jedi Mind Trick to change someone else’s anger to love, or at least tolerance.

·      Bottled up feelings. I remember once when I read a love poem at a poetry reading, and a woman in the audience commented that my wife must enjoy my being so open with my feelings. Fortunately Kim was not in the audience. I said that when Kim asks me how I feel about this or that, my honest response is, “Let me get back to you in a few days.” (My lid is screwed on pretty tight.) Now, what? Talk. Find a time. Or write, even if nobody ever sees it. Pay a shrink if you have to.

·      Shit your parents or your ex did or said to you. There’s a wonderful poem by Philip Larken that begins, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.” Now, what? Forgive them. One great thing about forgiving someone is that when you do that, you take the moral high ground, dispensing forgiveness down to the forgiven. There is a complex psychological payoff to forgiveness. At the same time, it might be good to ask for some forgiveness.

·      Hormones. One time I took a prednisone blast for some bad poison ivy, and I found myself weeping for no reason and dreaming about skinning babies. Now, what? Sorry, but I’ve found nothing that works except the passage of time and letting myself cry.

            Andrew Solomon, who has written and spoken eloquently about his depression, said that the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. That’s what I like about Julia/Meryl’s “Now, what?” She does not mean, “What’s going to happen to me next?” No, she means, “What am I going to do about this right now?” One thing I do is mock my stupid self-pity (“Boo-hoo!”) and then get busy with something.

            I have been able to get through of most of my dark days, but I have not had similar success with Donald Trump.

Comment from Angie:
I think it's really important to have a dialogue with one's self when one experiences a "Dark Day." Of course, it doesn't always work. I support the approach of "doing something." I refuse to be a victim or a martyr. It's not always that easy to get a grip on life, but it sure is worth achieving that goal. 

That said, I'm going to try my best not to spill oil tonight as I make polenta with Italian sausage and sauce. When I am tossing my spinach salad with blue cheese, sliced Granny Smith apple, dried cherries, sliced Asian pear, and my special home made dressing, I will try my best to keep the dressing in the salad bowl. 

We will toast to our good friends in Florida with a fine Gabbiano Chianti Classico. It is 21 degrees here in AA. We got about 3 inches of that white stuff. 

Loved your blog! It's a great one for discussion. If Trump is elected, we are moving to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico.

Jim added:
I have to say "me too" to Angie's reply.  I'll only add this: Of course Mexico's government is even worse than ours, but at least it won't be our government. That should help us to shrug it off. 


  1. David, thank you for this thoughtful, poignant and yet somehow amusing blog entry. You illuminated a few of my dark places for me, and gave me some ideas of how to keep the light there. Your statement about deciding to change your feelings is one I need to remember always. I appreciate your sharing.

  2. Thanks, David. This was particularly special.

    Happy New Year to you and Kim.

    Rick Medina