Accomplish More by Refusing to Accept Your Usual Excuses

Woman belaying
This works best when you're not dizzy, nauseated, or dehydrated.
Because I’m depressed much of the time, I procrastinate a lot. I devote a shameful amount of mental energy to either badgering myself into action or, more often, talking myself out of it. Since I got out of the hospital this last time, I notice that I divide my motives for inaction between lame, shuffling excuses and near-irrefutable reasons.

I’m simple, and if I’m not paying attention, I can easily dupe myself with an excuse along the lines of, “I just don’t feel like it right now — maybe after I’ve eaten something….” If I’m on my game, though, I can bring myself up with a round turn and scold myself out of that sort of absurdity. As a result, lame excuses don’t present a serious problem.

Reasons that appear excellent on the surface present a much greater danger to happiness and productivity. I started paying attention to this issue a few days ago when I was preparing to go climbing. There are always excellent reasons to avoid rock climbing: It requires concentration, and I often feel distracted and irritable; it can be tiring, and I often lack energy; success and failure are highly public, and I am inclined to self-consciousness; there’s a small but real risk of death or serious injury for myself or my partner. I recognize, though, that none of these constitutes a real reason to avoid an activity that I love and excel at. My main reason for not getting to the gym? Feeling nauseated or dizzy.

You may cry, as I do, “But that’s an excellent reason! What if you got sick or fainted while you were on belay? You could kill your climbing partner! Nausea and dizziness are symptoms of dehydration — it would be very bad to climb while you’re dehydrated!” And so forth.

The thing is, nausea and dizziness are my main anxiety symptoms, and anxiety has paralyzed me for much of my life. If I refuse to climb — or go to church, or practice yoga, or whatever — whenever my stomach is upset, I won’t do any of these things often enough to make a difference. I’ll spend my life firmly planted under my bedclothes, whimpering. For other people, gastrointestinal symptoms are a sign that they should take it easy. For me, they just mean that I’m anxious. If I don’t accept the small risk that I really am sick, I’ll never get really good at climbing, or at anything else that presents a serious challenge. I can’t afford to accept an excuse that would serve for another person.

The good news is, the last few times I went climbing, I did it in spite of really rotten stomach cramps. Of course, I stopped noticing the pain after I climbed a couple of routes. I managed to stay focused while on belay; I didn’t faint, drop the rope, and allow my partner to fall to his death. The moral of the story? If I want to function, let alone excel, I need to push past even my most sensible excuses.

Love to all.


I Don’t Wanna Feel Better, or, The Perversity of Depression

Strawberry-rhubarb pie
How dare you suggest that I might enjoy this pie?
Lately I’ve been thinking about a disturbing trend: When I’m seriously depressed, I actively resist simple strategies that would help me to feel better. A friend of mine emailed me a story that captured this very human perversity perfectly. He writes:

Okay, I am depressed. How do I know this? Because of my 3-year old nephew.

[My nephew] loves pie. I think he loves pie more than anything else in the world. He is a pie junkie. If my sister tells him that there is pie for dessert he will do almost anything to make sure that he gets it.

But then there are other times… there are times he will refuse to eat even a small fraction of his dinner, even if it is a dinner he would normally like. When told he won’t get pie unless he eats some chicken, he will yell, quite falsely, “I don’t want pie!” After he is then informed that okay, since he doesn’t want pie he won’t get pie, [he] will throw himself to the floor, crying and screaming.

So he’s on the floor, and my sister calmly tells him he is welcome to have pie after he eats just a little chicken. The choice is his. Somehow, this just makes things worse. He digs in his heels. Next he is told that it doesn’t matter if he wants pie, he is going to eat some chicken. No TV, no toys, no bed, no leaving the kitchen. [He] has no choice but to eat some chicken. After 30 minutes of stalling, stammering, everything he can do to delay the inevitable, Nathan swallows his sixth bite of chicken and is offered a slice of pie. He accepts, grudgingly, and downs his pie silently. This is not the pie he wants. This is the pie of defeat.

As an adult, I’m both parent and fussy toddler, and therefore the struggle is even more tiresome: I know that taking a walk, say, consistently makes me feel better, but I’m so overcome with a certain depression-specific apathy that I choose depressing activities over ones that will almost certainly energize me. The problem, I think, is that it’s tiring to make even the simplest effort, and though I often feel better while, say, walking, the depression comes crashing back over me once I’m done. A temporary mood lift doesn’t seem worth the effort.

The previous makes some sense. As I write, though, I’m conscious that there’s a more pure perversity at work, too, a flat-out rejection of simple pleasures. Another friend who comments in this space likes to recount an exchange we had 10 or 12 years ago. It went a little something like this:

Me, grudgingly dressing on a winter morning: Damn it, my jeans are still wet.

Him: Why don’t you iron them dry? They would be nice and warm and dry then.

Me, in a tone of flat contempt: Bullshit.

Of course, warm jeans are delightful on a chilly winter morning. But I didn’t want to be delighted, and I felt insulted at the suggestion that a trivial material comfort might ameliorate my exquisite suffering. Or something. On certain days, this perversity pervades everything. I don’t have anything especially clever to say about this tendency, but I have wanted to note it for several days now. So, irritating, self-destructive tendency noted.

Here’s some happy news: Last week I started an intensive outpatient program at a local hospital, and so far I’m loving it. Good thing, since it entails nine hours a week of therapy, including stress management techniques, mindfulness exercises, and the like. More on this later, including an observation on the one thing that did annoy me about the first session.

Love to all.

An Excellent Suicide Prevention Resource, Plus Whimsical Notes from a Happy Mind

Praying Mantis
Like praying mantises, academics eat their own.
After reading Susan’s latest post to If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going, I paged down to find the links that she recommends for depressed people who are considering suicide. That’s how I stumbled on Suicide: Read This First. This excellent resource considers the following idea: “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.” I’d never heard that formulation before, and I think it’s brilliant. The best way to avoid suicide is not to strive fruitlessly to cheer up, but rather to increase one’s resources until they outweigh the pain.

And speaking of resources, I’ve finally taken concrete steps to replace my psychiatrist. I have appointments today and early next week to give two new shrinks a try. I’ve wanted to do this for months, but have had no idea how to go about finding a doctor who shows up on time for appointments and reads the package inserts before giving me sample medications. For once it only took one call to set things in motion — I just got in touch with the Employee Assistance Program counselor for my company. I’ve used our concierge service to find cat sitters and an accountant, but I’ve always felt obscurely that I couldn’t hope to get help with a nasty task like hiring a shrink. After an hour-long appointment I felt such renewed hope that I sent the counselor flowers. It was that good.

In fact, yesterday was one of my few normal days. Halfway through my work day I thought, “Hey, it’s not so terrible to be here!” When I’m depressed I carry my misery everywhere; when I’m normal I’m capable of enjoying the challenges and rewards of both my private and work lives.

I found Jonathan Meade’s latest post to Illuminated Mind provocative. I was all ready to get riled after reading the headline: “Choose Not to Fail.” As it turns out, he makes a valuable point. All too often, we decide to try to do something rather than to succeed at it. When you choose to succeed, you’re almost unstoppable; when you merely try, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I’ve experienced the power of choosing not to fail in my own life. I started grad school with a couple of material disadvantages compared to the other members of my cohort, all of whom hailed from Ivy League universities, and many of whom already had an M.A. (They almost certainly had better grades coming in to grad school, too, since in many ways I’m an indifferent student.) When the director of our three related programs addressed us, his remarks reminded me of an old Far Side cartoon in which an adult praying mantis tells a crowd of hatchlings, “Of course, most of you will be eaten.” Right then and there I swore that I was going to kick ass, take names, and come out with a doctorate. I thought, If nothing else, I’ll live the life of the mind for several years. Almost a decade later I was the first of a dozen little mantises to graduate.

Now, you may object, “Sure, you got your degree, but it was a perverse thing to do.” Well, yes, my goal could have been better chosen, and I now routinely encourage the occasional Ph.D. candidates I meet to drop out before it’s too late. I am proud that I succeeded against rotten odds, though, and even though my education hasn’t proven practical, having it has illuminated my mind beyond measure. To give a simple example, when I walk through a museum, I recognize the various gods, heroes and saints that paintings portray. Having a nodding acquaintance with the Western tradition has animated philosophy, literature, and history for me. I didn’t stay in the field, but I did get what I wanted out of my academic career.

I can think of one other possible objection. Getting my degree was a bloody struggle — when I think back, I marvel at the death-defying feats it required. At the same time, I’m pretty sure I was never fated to coast along happily. The Furies probably would have chased me down any path I chose.

Even a moderate helping of education brings a certain amount of indigestion, of course. This brings me back to the reckless deployment of “whom” that I described yesterday. It’s occurred to me since that we ought to have a sort of national licensing board for pronouns, a United States version of the Academie francaise. No more “Her and I went to the bank,” or “She’s the friend that I love the most.” I’m thinking that the Pronoun Control Board would issue licenses in a tiered system, much as the Motor Vehicle Department allows you to apply to drive anything from a common car to a big rig. Most people outside of New York and San Francisco have to pass a driving test; we should approach learning to write with the same seriousness.

Of course, creating such a board would have its own perils. Whoever first acts as “They” would almost certainly pack the board with pretentious conservatives like William Bennett, and we’d end up like the French, who still have no feminine-gender nouns for many professions.

Perhaps it would be better to settle for a less ambitious scheme.

Sea Monkeys
Sea Monkeys may be a promising corporate morale-booster.
Mandatory desk-side cultivation of either Magic Rocks or Sea Monkeys might exercise a similar civilizing influence.

There you have it, folks.

How Much Can I Control My Moods? In Which I Turn Back to God

St. Augustine, Bishop of HippoFor me, the question above torments me at times; the answer seems to change from day to day, whiplashing me from guilt to hopelessness to a fragile hope.

When I did a swan-dive from mania to depression on Sunday, the speed and seeming inexorability of my descent awed me. When I’m depressed, I flog myself to stick to even the mildest wellness routines. When I ascend into mania, everything that I ought to do is effortless, a pleasure. I walk, socialize, and pray without thinking and with enjoyment. I see God working in my life. And just as I’m leading a more or less blameless life, the depression crashes back over me, and I’m like King Canute in the fable, commanding the waves to turn back. Canute wets his feet; I drown. God turns his face from me.

Yesterday, despite withering guilt, I left work sick. I’ve been missing too much work lately, but I felt that I couldn’t stay. To my intense humiliation, when I told my section head, I wept and shook so hard that she escorted my to the nurse’s office and refused to let me drive home until I’d spoken to him. Oh, God. My madness on display for the whole section to see.

As I set off on my commute — so much more pleasant now that I have my lovely and perfect Charger — I suddenly knew what was wrong. On Saturday, when I was still incandescent with mania, I’d had an encounter with a friend that shook my sense of myself. I used him, he used me back, and we both left feeling alarmed and frankly repelled. I didn’t feel precisely guilty, but I know that I had harmed him and the relationship, and that I would have to talk to him about it. This came to me with the force of a religious revelation; in fact, it was a religious revelation.

Typically I will suffer any indignity or commit any crime without apology if either will help me to avoid initiating a Relationship Talk. In connections of all sorts, more than anything I dread finding myself in the role of Demanding Woman. As a result, I am easily controlled. If anyone accuses me of “drama,” I fall right into line. My most recent boyfriend, God bless him, caught on to this quickly and used it remorselessly. At the very end, his sudden, bizarre descent into cruelty would have plunged any rational woman into hysterical rage; he branded my mild attempts at rational communication “drama,” and I cut him off entirely rather than play out the role of Dido.

Imagine my dread, then, when it came to me that in order to ease my depression I would have to call a meeting and express my needs clearly. Yikes.

The meeting itself proved instructive (he was free to stop by immediately, since like every last one of my friends, he’s been laid off). It’s strange — for all that I loathe them, I’m good at difficult conversations of all sorts. I cruise through critical evaluations at work, for example, watching myself respond without a trace of defensiveness and formulate a plan for improvement on the spot. I carry out these plans, too. Accordingly, my supervisors come away with a higher opinion of me, and I become a better employee. So I conducted myself well with my friend, and he responded with relief and similar candor.

As we spoke, I realized that he had been waiting for me to set the tone for further interactions. If I’d accused him of horrors, he would have accepted the charges; if I’d said that our bad behavior fulfilled me as a woman and begged him to treat me accordingly, he would have made every effort to do that, despite his instinctive revulsion. I approached the incident with calm curiosity, explored the issue with him, then set a new bottom line for our interactions. I expected him to reject my request out of hand, even to end the friendship. We’d discussed numerous times how we wanted to treat each other and be treated, but I’m not naive, and I know that people will often express a desire to change only to reject every opportunity to do so.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when he agreed to my suggestion with relief. I expected him to hate me for telling him what I wanted; I’d behaved as if wanting anything at all was a cruel imposition. He’d done the same, which led to a hilarious-from-the-outside waltz in which we tried to discern each other’s wishes, and to lead accordingly.

So my depression lifted markedly. Somehow knowing that I can control it humbled me as much as the feeling of total helplessness that I’d had earlier in the week. I responded with near-indignation, asking God (who had turned back when I approached him), Wait, does this mean I have to do the right thing, even when it’s hard? And that I don’t need a therapist to tell me what the right thing is? If my mood depends upon conducting myself well, it’s worse than I thought.

Since last week I’d suspected that the my campaign for perfection was trivial. Getting off the Internet and leaving my cell phone at home delighted me independent of mood; whether I dutifully walked, for example, depended entirely on my preexisting mood. The latter is trivial, the former profound.

Another humbling reflection: I know what I need to do to feel better. Typically it’s the very thing that I am sure will leave me a Bad Employee and an unloved outcast. I’ve adopted certain habits because I believe they stand between me and oblivion. As I discovered when I quit my antianxiolytic, the only way I can find relief is to let them go. Hm.

So, yeah, I need to re-read St. Augustine’s Confessions and reacquaint myself with that brilliant and very human saint. Perhaps, in a characteristic burst of irrelevancy, I’ll discuss them here.

Love to all.

When It Comes to Mood, Is It Better to Fake Happiness?

Tragedy Mask
I may prefer tragedy, but in the business world, people like a feel-good family look.
So here’s the question of the day: Is there any value in heroically faking a good mood?

I began by thinking, no, if only because I’m a lousy actor. Even people who know me only casually can tell immediately whether or not I’m depressed. Some people lack perception, or have an investment in ignoring my mood, but overall even when I’d rather not talk about it or would like to hide it out of pride, most people can easily tell how I feel. (The sad fact is, a coworker who sometimes stops by my office to chat recently asked me if I’d had a death in the family — he couldn’t think of any other explanation for my very apparent misery. Oh my.) If this is the case, why should I even try to hide it?

There are two excellent reasons, I think. First, evidence exists that faking good feelings can boost your mood. Simply smiling, for example, will tend to lift your spirits even if your grin feels like a terrifying rictus.

What’s more, constant moping can threaten your professional standing. Your friends may tolerate it, but it’s reasonable for your colleagues to expect that you be cheerful and willing to help out. Perhaps in a perfect world everyone would bleed with tender compassion for everyone they meet, but they don’t, and expecting them to is just another instance of “I shouldn’t have to…” thinking.

Let me define that train of argument. I’ve heard friends say, “I shouldn’t have to dress up to see clients! I work in a casual industry!” or “I shouldn’t have to cover my tattoos!” Well, sure. People should see beyond appearances and judge you on your behavior and professional ability. But they don’t. So why create ill-will out of some perverse sense of entitlement?

Further, I admit that I judge people unfairly every day. When people are consistently even five minutes late for meetings — not to mention 20 minutes late to work in the morning — I feel that they’re showing disrespect for me and the company. When people make incessant personal phone calls, I take it as evidence that their lives are out of control, and I question their professionalism. I think these conclusions are reasonable. But a woman who wears tight clothes or too much perfume is just as evil a menace. So, yeah, I don’t resent demands that I demonstrate a positive, can-do attitude. (Though I refuse to multitask.)

And I’ve realized recently that my grim demeanor may affect my professional life more than I know. Let me offer a couple of illustrative instances.

1. One of the engineers in my aisle never smiles or meets my eyes when we pass each other. On some level, I feel that he doesn’t like me. But, um, I never smile or look at him either. So who’s the unfriendly one?

2. Even worse, my office mate has taken to squatting one door down with our tech lead. This, despite the fact that I’m scheduled to move to another building entirely in a couple of weeks. She’s a veritable model of unprofessional leakage of the personal into work hours, but I still feel hurt. True, when her friends visit I keep my eyes glued to my screen and click away. And I have been seething generally lately. But I never wear intrusive perfume or play annoying music, and since these are my pet peeves, I feel that refraining makes me the model office mate.

When I’m honest with myself, though, I know that I have been a little black rain cloud for months now, and that I’ve probably huffed and flounced during her endless socializing. I may well look pointedly at my watch when she walks in late from 20 to 45 minutes late every day. So by her standards, I’m unpleasantly arrogant. If she were to complain to our section head, it would pose a real problem. Our boss calls us “The DM Team,” and upper management carries on a non-stop propaganda campaign to encourage fairness, respect, diversity, and team play. I can sneer and mock all I want, but by doing so I risk my reputation as a can-do team player, and in our line of work that reads as poor customer service.

In short, I will defend to the death my right to snarl and snap in my personal life, but I don’t think it’s especially defensible at work.

All of that leads me to conclude that it would be to my advantage to make more of an effort, even if that means setting quotas for smiles and conversations struck up.

The good news is, I find myself smiling spontaneously around the test and software engineers. My obdurate hatred of Mission Planning is even beginning to melt. So perhaps I’ll feel less need to fake it once I move in with them permanently.

Love to all.

Tap Into Your Own Wisdom

When you fall into a rotten mood, it’s easy to feel as if you need the advice of a shrink, or even just a wise friend. There’s something a bit disingenuous about that, though. In truth, you almost always know better than anyone else what you most need to do to improve your situation. Accordingly, I’ve lately been asking myself a series of questions, beginning with, “What would I tell a close friend who was in the same situation?” This proved most effective this past Sunday.

Sunday morning I was thoroughly depressed. I felt hopeless and helpless by 4:00 a.m., and typically my mood starts out at its peak and deteriorates from there. I managed to keep my wits about me, though, and I did think to ask myself the magic question. The answer was simple: If a friend told me that she was feeling the way I felt, I would cuddle up to her and tell her that I loved her and believed in her, and that she was important to me. In short, I didn’t need a list of 29 Things to Do on a Rough Sunday — I needed a human connection.

I wish I could say that I thought of a friend who would do that and burned up the phone lines calling her for help. In fact, the only people in town who would do that for me are my mom and dad, and I felt too ashamed to ask them. So I resorted to my next magic question: “What is the problem here, and what can I do right now to change things?” Because, you see, part of my misery stemmed from the conviction that nothing would ever change, and that I would live a gradually dwindling life ending in a death that would pass completely unremarked. I love my cats, but I never forget the fact (or urban legend) that they would begin to eat me as soon as they got hungry.

Seriously, though: I’m haunted by the thought that when my great-uncle Bob and my paternal grandmother died, we didn’t hold funerals. That’s partly because they both were atheists who wanted to be cremated, but it was also because attendance at either event would have been thin at best. They were brother and sister, of course, and they both had been politically and socially active. My grandmother attended two Democratic Party conventions as a delegate, and knew two Presidential candidates and one Supreme Court Justice during her day. In the end, though, they were both terribly shy and proud, and they couldn’t bring themselves to take the simple steps needed to keep them from living their last years in terrible isolation. My great-uncle did actually kill himself (I’ve written about him in my blog).

Their fate demonstrates to me that it is possible to shrink away from human contact entirely, with tragic results. Therapists often act as if the worst never happens, and your problems stem from a negative mindset rather than your true circumstances. This is real life, though, and actions do have consequences. In my case, I can see myself becoming so isolated that any family members who survive me decide to skip the funeral. If I continue to act as I’ve been acting, that’s a likely outcome.

After entertaining this diverting thought for an hour or so, I pulled myself together and tried to define the problem in the most concrete possible way. I set out this month to improve my existing relationships, but that’s a pretty foggy goal, and I find myself hard-pressed to measure whether or not I’m actually meeting it. In order to come up with something more measurable and attainable, I needed to revisit the roots of the problem.

One clue stems from something that annoys me about self-help books. They’re based on the assumption that you’re stressed, depressed, anxious, whatever, because you don’t have time to meet all of your social commitments, what with the constant demands of your spouse and kids. I’m sure this is a common difficulty, but it’s not mine, and I’ve been very frustrated recently just trying to find a book that acknowledges my reality. At work, I’m overstimulated and overwhelmed, but once I get home, I’m lonely and, at times, bored.

I think this problem is more common than people like to admit. Technological overload is not the only modern problem; one that’s just as characteristic and serious is the breakdown of social ties. Plenty of people are estranged from their parents and siblings and dependent on the Internet and long-distance phone calls for much of their social contact. After all, the more frequently you move, the more friends you leave behind, and for the shy among us, it’s very hard to establish a “support network” (I hate that phrase) in each new city.

Rather than dwell on demographics, though, I needed to define precisely, practically mechanically, what keeps me from connecting with people. I think it’s this: I don’t really know how to befriend people, or even how to make conversation in a lot of situations. If my coworkers are gathered around eating birthday cake, for example, I have no idea how to join them gracefully, and I imagine them all falling silent when I creep up. I find the idea of asking a likely coworker to get coffee with me puzzling, to put it mildly, and I know that it’s not as simple as blurting out an invitation at a random moment.

So clearly I need to start with something basic and concrete. I wonder, I thought, if there are any books on how to make friends? I need some sort of primer on social contact that will take me through step by step so that I can set simple goals and enjoy immediate success. Though I was sure it would be no use at all, I went to the bookstore to look for such a thing. To my surprise, it exists: business consultant Debra Fine has written an excellent book called The Fine Art of Small Talk.

And, strangely, reading it really, really helped. The suggestions are detailed and practical, and now I feel like I can set goals and reach them. The problem isn’t, “No one cares if I live or die.” Instead, I’ve reframed it as a skill that I’m lacking that I can develop if I simply apply myself. So I read the book and set a goal (smile and meet the eyes of 10 people at work every day for three days, and pick four conversational openers to have at the ready). I still feel pretty dragged out, but I genuinely feel some hope.

I’m happy to note, too, that yesterday I met and surpassed my smiling goal easily. I also deployed my small-talk line. I was chatting with an engineer, one of the few people who comes to my office to talk, and just as the conversation lagged, I thought to ask, “So, are you working on any New Year’s resolutions?” That revived the conversation nicely.

Love to all.

In Which I Compare Myself to Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great
Most other great generals acknowledge that the Macedonian King Alexander the Great was the conqueror’s conqueror. Perhaps the best measure is the simple fact that his conquests covered the known world. He kicked every butt that was available to kick, from other Greeks to the Persians and back again. He died at 32, partly as a result of wounds that he received in battle, and, not surprisingly, his heirs couldn’t hold on to the immense and disparate lands that he managed to acquire.

Though he devoted his brief life to making war, Alexander was far from the stupid bully or killing machine that you might imagine. His tutor during childhood was Aristotle, and he seems to have been an apt pupil. Even today, we use the phrase (or I use the phrase) “Alexandrine solution” to refer to his stunt of slicing through the famous Gordian knot with his sword rather than bothering to untangle it.

Even so, Alexander’s skills didn’t really lie in statesmanship; he may have settled into a wise and just ruler if he had lived longer, but he devoted his short life to making war. That’s probably why Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler admired him so. And, indeed, it makes sense to ask why we should admire him at all. Conquering the known world is a dubious enterprise at best, involving, as it does, a staggering number of deaths and casualties. He did bring Greek culture to the East, but if I were living in the East at the time I wouldn’t have felt particularly grateful for the gift.

That said, I find myself admiring Alexander much as I admire the Romans. From this distance, it’s easy to forget about his brutality, and to admire his skill, drive, and bravery. Here’s a funny thing, though: Alexander suffered from bizarre mood swings. Much of the time he labored under some pretty hefty notions of grandiosity. If he hadn’t been king and a brilliant general, his conviction that he was destined to rule the world would have been downright bizarre. As it was, he managed to get others to buy into his crazy schemes, and the result made history.

Historians also record bouts of what seems to have been severe depression. He would sulk in his tent for days on end, refusing to come out or see anyone, and probably thinking, “So I conquer the Persians? And? So?” He indulged in drinking bouts that weren’t unusual for that time and culture, but that would put contemporary frat boys to shame. Despite all that, he always did emerge, ready to fight on.

And that’s why I meditated on Alexander the Great for an hour or so yesterday. Sure, his enterprise was arbitrary and destructive, but it drove him, and it changed history, perhaps even for the better. If the Big Question is “Why bother?” Alexander’s answer did make some sense. Since I don’t have an army at my back, there’s no danger that I’ll get carried away and follow in his footsteps. I can see the point, though: you bother for two reasons. First, it beats sulking in your tent, and second, because your skill has turned into a calling, and you really can’t stop.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that writing has saved the mind of more than one scribbler. People don’t write because they figure they’re going to top Homer and Ovid (well, Shakespeare did, but again, it’s a case of grandiosity meets ability). They write, as Harlan Ellison said, because they can do no other. If I do launch a Grandiose Plan, I will be doing it partly to give myself something to write about, to gain enough stature in my own mind to justify sharing my jottings with the world.

I sat down this morning with little notion of what to say, and I haven’t really said much. But I’m chipper, and feel a sense of accomplishment nonetheless. So, yes, one of my best pieces of advice is this: Devote yourself utterly to a craft, whether it be art or war, and let it carry you through those long, bleak stretches.