Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On Robin Williams and Depression

In the day since his death, Robin Williams has been mourned and eulogized all over the internet, and probably in conversations all over the country. I can’t add anything, really, except that his death makes me think about clinical depression.  This illness has many sources, some of them chemical and genetic, some of them environmental.  It’s an illness just as much as diabetes is an illness. However, most of us don’t view it the same way we view diabetes.  Don’t say that’s because diabetes isn’t dangerous and potentially lethal, because it certainly is.

Depression runs in my family, on both sides. It has led to three suicides: an uncle on my mother’s side,  and two cousins on my father’s side.  All three of those relatives were men, and all three shot themselves.  Perhaps they would still be alive if they hadn’t had guns.  Perhaps not.  It is a great mystery. I’d venture to say that many more relatives have suffered from at least occasional depression, including my father and mother.  Including myself. 

Depression seems to be an occupational hazard for comedians, and also for novelists and poets. It’s a great mystery.  

We really do need to pay attention to the signs of clinical depression in friends and family members.
  • Fatigue or loss of energy almost every day
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt almost every day
  • Impaired concentration, indecisiveness
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping) almost every day
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities nearly every day (called anhedonia, this symptom can be indicated by reports from significant others)
  • Restlessness or feeling slowed down
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
  • Significant weight loss or gain (a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month)

I just read this insightful essay by Dick Cavett on the subject, and I’m pasting it here:

Dick Cavett: Robin Williams Won’t Be the Last Suicidal Star

Robin Williams will not be the last cherished performer to be snatched from our midst by depression and suicide.
It’s a melancholy fact that what a musician friend calls “the real blues,” and Churchill called “the Black Dog,” seem to have a much too close affinity to a performer’s life. Depression seems to stalk the lively arts like Jack the Ripper, accompanied by depression’s hand-maiden, suicide.
No one I know claims to know why.

Is there something in the brain chemistry of the actor/performer that produces this woeful result?

I could fill this page and another with the names of famous and less so actors, comics, and musicians who live miserably — and die — in association with that demon of a hound.
And booze is the favored self-treatment. Not surprising, because you will feel a little better, for a bit — but it’s a costly temporary reprieve, since alcohol is a depressant of the central nervous system.
I guarantee you that thousands, hearing of Robin’s death, asked how he could do it when he had everything: fame, wealth, adulation, family love. And another supposed insulator against the worst of the blues, plenty of work. No combination of those adds up to insurance. And the hectic, nerve-wracking ups and downs of fortune in show business are, of course, a major factor for emotional disequilibrium.
You yourself may have thought, “How could he do this to his wife and kids?” Easy. Because what’s been called the worst agony devised for man doesn’t allow you to feel any emotion for kids, spouses, lovers, parents … even your beloved dog. And least of all for yourself.
I know Robin knew this. His death recalled a moment with him years ago in a small club. He came off stage after bringing a cheering audience to its feet. “Isn’t it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people,” he said. “But not to myself.”
The non-actor has a major advantage because it’s harder to hide the symptoms. The actor knows how to act. To play having fun. Too often it’s “He was the life of the party that night. And then he went home and…”
Robin and I agreed once that it’s galling to hear — when you’re “in it” — the question: “What have you got to be depressed about?” The great British actor and comedian, Stephen Fry, a fellow-sufferer, replies “And what have you got to have asthma about?”
Robin, like his idol Jonathan Winters, must have had one of the world’s hardest talents with which to live and retain personal balance. Sitting next to him on my old PBS show was like sitting in the Macy’s barge next to the fireworks going off. He was at full, manic, comic frenzy for an hour without let-up. (We even improvised a short Shakespeare play together, with and without rhymed couplets.) I caught his manic energy. It was exhilarating. And exhausting.
When it ended, I was wet and spent. It took him a while to come (partially) down, and I thought, “Can this be good for anyone? Can you be able to do all these rapid-fire personality changes and emerge knowing who you yourself are?
But can any of us really see ourselves? I was unable to watch a show I did with Laurence Olivier while I was virtually blinded with depression. I told Marlon Brando I could never watch it, knowing I’d look dead, slow, and stupid. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Watch it.” I made myself watch. I looked fine. My eyes were bright and the silences I recalled were gone.
I called Brando and I asked him what explained that. “Automatic pilot. We all get by on it when the clouds roll in. Too bad they roll back in when the performance ends and you get back under the bed.”
This will not brighten the picture: I said to a brilliant psychopharmacologist recently that there must be a lot of progress and new medications since I suffered depression back in the ’70s. The answer: “No, we’re really not making much progress I’m afraid.”
Some day, will some chemical link be found between great, great performing talent and susceptibility to that awful conqueror of the talented performer?
Are the gods jealous? Do they cruelly envy the greatly gifted and, in the classic Greek manner, smite them low?
The somewhat grim answer: We’d better enjoy them while we can.
Dick Cavett   on  Aug.12  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Santa Fe and the Turquoise Trail

I made it into Santa Fe only three times during my stay at Glen West: on Tuesday, when I took the bus in from the college and wandered about on my own all afternoon; on Friday, when my friends from home who now live there came and took me out to dinner; on Sunday, when the Shuttle bus picked up its other passengers on the way back to Albuquerque.   It wasn't nearly enough time, but here are some photos from the Tuesday trip:
I'm standing beside the statue of St.Kateri Tekakwitha, in front of Saint Francis Cathedral.

interior of the Cathedral   photo by Greg Friedman

screen behind the altar in the Cathedral    photo by Greg Friedman

On Sunday, our shuttle bus back to Albuquerque took an alternate route. Seems that Interstate 25 was closed due to a traffic pileup, so our driver went via the Turquoise Trail - the Scenic Route:

photo from

Golden Mission , Madrid NM from

photo from

Garden of the Gods near Cerrillos NM   photo by

It was a breathtaking ride !

Thursday, August 7, 2014

More from the Glen West Workshop

The weather cleared up, and we've had just beautiful days and nights.  The quality of the air, dry and cool, delights me.  The campus looks like an Old West town to me, but more dressed up: simple yet elegant, and built right into the hills.

Outside the student center is a wonderful pond filled with Koi, and framed with evergreen trees and bushes. I watched a hummingbird catching bugs , darting in and out of the branches of one of the trees.

This morning, three of my classmates and I went birding on one of the hiking trails on the campus.
We saw House Finches, Spotted Towhees, Scrub Jays, Robins, a Red-Shafted Flicker,and heard Goldfinches. Many other birds were in there, in the thickets. We even saw a Raven.  The highlight for me , among the many hummingbirds darting around, was a Rufous Hummingbird, the sun glinting on his brillant rusty throat.

Lots of wildflowers, too, though I don't have photos of them, just these columbines:

The classes, talks, and worship services have also been great.  I have learned many things to help me with my poetry.  Will try to go into those in another entry.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Monday at Glen West

The view this morning from the terrace on the second floor of the Peterson Student Center ; it's more dramatic in the early evening when the sun is shining on that mountain and valley.

We began our workshops today.  Here are a few things I noted down from Scott Cairns' observations:
What makes a poem a poem?
... the poetic operation of language
... the opacity of words ... mirroring and mystery...
your own image is implicated in that.

...word-conscious opacity... musicality  ( I almost wrote muscatelity!)
... the shape a word makes in your mouth...
entering into a conversation that's been going on for centuries...

If you read a poem once and you're done with it, it's not a poem.

The English language: the ghosts of so many other languages in this museum...

A word is a thing and it DOES things...

...words that trouble...
The clarity yields its enormity...

Through much of the three hours of discussion and workshop, I realize I have left my poems, so many of them, too soon.

He read us Wallace Stevens' masterpiece  "The Idea of Order at Key West" ---a poem that he returns to again and again, year after year:

The Idea of Order at Key West

by Wallace Stevens

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.   
The water never formed to mind or voice,   
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion   
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,   
That was not ours although we understood,   
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.   
The song and water were not medleyed sound   
Even if what she sang was what she heard,   
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred   
The grinding water and the gasping wind;   
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.   
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.   
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew   
It was the spirit that we sought and knew   
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea   
That rose, or even colored by many waves;   
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,   
However clear, it would have been deep air,   
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound   
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,   
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,   
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped   
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres   
Of sky and sea.
                      It was her voice that made   
The sky acutest at its vanishing.   
She measured to the hour its solitude.   
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,   
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her   
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,   
Why, when the singing ended and we turned   
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,   
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,   
As the night descended, tilting in the air,   
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,   
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,   
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,   
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,   
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,   
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
 A cloud in the sky above our building here this morning.

This afternoon, it's chilly and raining.  I'm hoping for a clearing, though they do need the rain.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Off to Santa Fe!

Early tomorrow morning I'll drive to the Baltimore Washington airport and fly out to Albuquerque and then take a shuttle to Santa Fe.  I'm attending the Glen West Workshop all week.  I've been yearning to go to this since 2001, when my poet friend Kate Daniels was there and told me about it.
Finally going!    I plan/hope to post photos and thoughts about it through the week.

Here's the website information: