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Posts Tagged ‘depression’

Mending Wall

September 23, 2014 | by

Broken_Fence_on_White_Hill_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1218674

Photo: Nigel Mykura

Colette once wrote that it’s impossible to write about love while you’re in it. (I’m paraphrasing.) I think the same is true of depression, although for different reasons. Love is too euphoric; depression is too tedious. It is not dramatic, it is not romantic. It is boring—to experience, to be around, to recollect. The rest of the time, when one is well, it is interesting only to the extent that a structurally unsound house is interesting to live in—you don’t think about it most of the time, and then occasionally you’re reminded to be careful, or to shore it up. (I can’t continue that metaphor because I have no idea how one goes about strengthening buildings. Mortar? Supports, probably.)

In the house where we grew up, the garage had a series of long cracks running up the stucco of its back wall. No one ever fixed it, but we were told sternly not to play near that wall. Instead, I would climb about twenty feet up a nearby pine tree, crawl onto the roof of the garage, and read there, or sometimes just run up and down the shingled peak, although I wasn’t habitually a physical risk-taker.

The only times my state of mind worries me are those times when Elves fails. Elves is the one thing that can always make me laugh—well, smile, anyway. The elves I mean are the ones in “Mending Wall,” wherein Frost’s speaker, walking the length of a crumbling fence with his hidebound neighbor, speculates  about the forces that tear it down. “I could say ‘Elves’ to him.” I love the idea of someone saying “Elves” to someone else; having the thought of it.

When I would get sad and grim and joyless and my college boyfriend would see a cloud cross my face, he would sometimes lean over and whisper, “Elves.” He would say it in a very stentorian way, often at the strangest moments—on the Cyclone at Coney Island, or in the quiet car of a commuter train. It was always enough to jolly me out of myself for the moment. Often, just thinking it is enough. While that’s in the world, we’re okay, or we will be. Read More »

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Come, My Lad, and Drink Some Beer

September 18, 2014 | by

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry.

From James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was born on September 18, 1709; Boswell wrote this passage in 1777, on the occasion of Johnson’s sixty-eighth birthday.

Thursday, September 18. Last night Dr. Johnson had proposed that the crystal lustre, or chandelier, in Dr. Taylor’s large room, should be lighted up some time or other. Taylor said, it should be lighted up next night. ‘That will do very well, (said I,) for it is Dr. Johnson’s birth-day.’ When we were in the Isle of Sky, Johnson had desired me not to mention his birth-day. He did not seem pleased at this time that I mentioned it, and said (somewhat sternly,) ‘he would not have the lustre lighted the next day.’

Some ladies, who had been present yesterday when I mentioned his birth-day, came to dinner to-day, and plagued him unintentionally, by wishing him joy. I know not why he disliked having his birth-day mentioned, unless it were that it reminded him of his approaching nearer to death, of which he had a constant dread.

I mentioned to him a friend of mine who was formerly gloomy from low spirits, and much distressed by the fear of death, but was now uniformly placid, and contemplated his dissolution without any perturbation. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) this is only a disordered imagination taking a different turn.’

He observed, that a gentleman of eminence in literature had got into a bad style of poetry of late. ‘He puts (said he,) a very common thing in a strange dress till he does not know it himself, and thinks other people do not know it.’ BOSWELL. ‘That is owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry.’ JOHNSON. ‘What is that to the purpose, Sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking much drink, the matter is not mended. No, Sir, ——— has taken to an odd mode. For example, he’d write thus:

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray.”

Gray evening is common enough; but evening gray he’d think fine.—Stay;—we’ll make out the stanza:

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray;
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell,
What is bliss? and which the way?”

BOSWELL. ‘But why smite his bosom, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, to shew he was in earnest,’ (smiling.)—He at an after period added the following stanza:

‘Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh’d;
—Scarce repress’d the starting tear;—
When the smiling sage reply’d—
—Come, my lad, and drink some beer.’

I cannot help thinking the first stanza very good solemn poetry, as also the three first lines of the second. Its last line is an excellent burlesque surprise on gloomy sentimental enquirers. And, perhaps, the advice is as good as can be given to a low-spirited dissatisfied being:—‘Don’t trouble your head with sickly thinking: take a cup, and be merry.’

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The Saddest Sound in the World

June 9, 2014 | by

G._Caillebotte_-_Jeune_homme_au_piano

Gustave Caillebotte, Jeune homme au piano, 1876.

Not long ago, I happened to pop into a candy store to buy a bag of Dutch licorice shaped like wooden shoes. “That’s a big bag,” said the girl who works there, indicating my burdens. “What’s in it?”

“Oh,” I said, “some antidepressants and a Snuggie.”

I think it was the saddest sentence I’ve ever uttered. The Snuggie was for my dad, but even so.

The next weekend, I went home to visit my parents. We went to some concert they wanted me to see. It was a rainy, blustery day, and I was dressed in my favorite pair of high-waisted windowpane-check wool trousers, which I got at a thrift store about five years ago. My dad met me at the train station. “What interesting pants, Sade,” he said. “They look like something from a nineteenth-century minstrel show.”

The concert in question was part of a free series at a local mansion, endowed by an elderly eccentric. My parents are regulars, but this was my first time. The mansion was liberally sprinkled with oil landscapes and filled with old people. The loner who’s always shooting hoops at the local playground was there. The pianist, who was quite the consummate entertainer, entered in white tie and tails and played some very bravura Liszt. Then he exited and returned in a red velveteen jacket—he played popular tunes, Liberace fashion, in a variety of jazzy styles. He cracked wise and delighted the assembled company. Read More »

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Terra Incognita

March 13, 2014 | by

Remembering Sherwin Nuland, the author of How We Die, who died last week.

THUMB_NULAND

Photo: Yale.edu

I attended the Yale School of Medicine when Shep Nuland taught there, and despite our both being surgeons, I know him best in my capacity as a reader. I don’t recall when I first read How We Die—I was just finishing high school when it came out—but I do know that few books I had read so directly and wholly addressed that fundamental fact of existence: all organisms, whether goldfish or grandchild, die. His description of his grandmother’s illness showed me how the personal, medical, and spiritual all intermingled. As a child, Nuland would play a game in which he indented her skin to see how long it took to resume its shape—a part of the aging process that, along with her newfound shortness of breath, showed her “gradual slide into congestive heart failure … the significant decline in the amount of oxygen that aged blood is capable of taking up from the aged tissues of the aged lung.”

But “what was most evident,” he continued, “was the slow drawing away from life… By the time Bubbeh stopped praying, she had stopped virtually everything else as well.” With her fatal stroke, Shep Nuland remembers Browne’s Religio Medici: “With what strife and pains we come into the world we know not, but ’tis commonly no easy matter to get out of it.” Read More »

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Sweets for the Sweet

February 6, 2014 | by

cookie carnival

A still from “The Cookie Carnival”

I devoutly hope there is an academic somewhere writing a serious essay about the role of anthropomorphic comestibles in Depression-era cartoons. I am no authority, but it seems pretty clear to me that, besides the obvious economic implications, all this humanized food has a great deal to do with gender norms, and attitudes toward food, and probably class, too. Disney’s 1935 Silly Symphony “The Cookie Carnival” would have to be the centerpiece of any such argument.

“The Cookie Carnival” is a Cinderella story that focuses on a sort of proto–Miss America boardwalk parade in which various confections compete for the title of “Cookie Queen.” In describing the plot, I can do no better than Wikipedia, which undertakes the task with commendable thoroughness:

Various sweets and goodies of Cookietown are preparing to crown their new Cookie Queen. A parade of potential candidates passes by, all based on various cakes and sweets. Far from the parade route, on what would appear to be the wrong side of the peppermint stick railroad tracks, a gingerbread drifter overhears an impoverished sugar cookie girl crying. Upon hearing that she cannot enter the parade because she hasn’t any pretty clothes, he hurries to remedy this, concocting a dress of colored frosting and candy hearts. He covers her brown hair with golden taffy ringlets and adds a large violet bow to her dress as a finishing touch. Thus attired, she is entered as the final contestant in the parade: Miss Bonbon. Read More »

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Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: Modernists Go Off-Menu

January 2, 2013 | by

The opening scenes of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times demonstrate the indignities mechanized factory production perpetrates upon the bodies of its workers. The first shot, of sheep herded into a pen, dissolves into one of men leaving the subway. They’re bound, the viewer assumes, for the kind of job in which the next cut finds Chaplin’s Little Tramp: working on an assembly line, his motions so repetitive that they become reflexive. He can’t stop twisting his wrists, as if to tighten bolts, even when he leaves the station where he tightens bolts all day. His body is so bound to the line and to the factory that the same boss who controls the conveyor belt’s speed also controls the movements of the Tramp’s body. Finally, the factory extends its control to the Tramp’s last autonomous function: eating his lunch.

A salesman so committed to mechanization that he lets a machine speak for him has brought to the factory boss’s office a prototype of “the Billows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work.” He asks the boss to pick one of his workers for a demonstration, and of course Chaplin’s Tramp is volunteered. Strapped into the machine, hands incapacitated, the helpless Tramp watches the machine rotate plates before him: soup, air-cooled between spoonfuls; corn, spinning on its cob; cubes of meat, pushed by a mechanical arm from the plate into his mouth; and finally cake for dessert. The machine promises to “eliminate the lunch hour.”

Even before the machine goes predictably haywire—speeding up, spilling soup on the Tramp’s shirt and cake in his face (always pausing, hilariously, to wipe his mouth)—it’s clear to the viewer that some kind of line has been crossed. Read More »

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