Samuel Beckett’s words (from the novella Worstward Ho) are an arch rallying cry for MFA types.
They have never set well with me. Blame a lifetime of planting the flag of my self-worth in the quicksand of perfectionism. Blame Puritan-Prussian heritage (my DNA is halfway to being a ladder). Blame having heard the message too late.
Blame apportioned, a problem remains. Perfectionism is permissible (if inadvisable) for an individual; it is unacceptable in teaching.
Not many days ago, I logged onto Zoom and began my presentation on Culturally Responsive Teaching for the Le Sallay Academy Blended Learning Conference. That it was my first time logging onto Zoom in a while should have given me pause.
Deep breath, off to a start.
We can’t hear you well, the moderator piped.
Jamming on my oversize headphones, I tried to smile and continued.
A pop-up obscured my presentation, something about recording, blah blah. Impatient to be rid of it, I clicked the X in the top right corner and found myself staring at a static screen.
My panicked brain registered, logged out.
My immediate impulse: crawl under the table and call it a day.
Instead, I scrabbled through the emails, found the link, logged back in, found myself flipping through tabs trying to restore my presentation, rictus grin on my face, tried to make light: As we can see, there is always the possibility of technical issues.
Broadly speaking, I’d rather be right than happy. Being right makes me happy.
Perhaps one of the reasons I came to teaching only after a substantial career in journalism was that my younger self needed to control the outcome. I can massage a piece of writing to perfection.
Standing in a classroom, or delivering a presentation, opens up all kinds of variables, exciting new ways to screw up.
There is a deep part of me that will always be appalled by this; counterbalancing, a part that knows learning is more important than knowledge — and that the only honest way to communicate this to students is to model it.
It isn’t enough to say, you can learn from mistakes; teachers need to demonstrate it.
Psychologist Carol Dweck coined the now-familiar terms growth mindset and fixed mindset. Writing for the Harvard Review, she notes: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset…. they worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning.”
They worry less about looking smart.
This is where the teacher tug-o’-war starts: the educator desire to want to model excellence and expertise versus the student need to see curiosity and willingness to screw up.
Because we do, oh we do.
You can’t learn what you already know, I tell my classes. Existing expertise may gratify the ego, but it doesn’t grow the intellect.
Adjuring students to take intellectual risks and accept failures as part of the learning process is a cop-out though. Everyone who has spent time around young mammals knows they are fiercely imitative. To have any chance of inspiring imitation, teachers need to show, not tell; act, not instruct.
This is borne out by research: MacDonnell Mesler et al. (2021) found that teachers with growth mindsets had a “positive and statistically significant association with the development of their students’ growth mindsets.”
How does a teacher demonstrate a growth mindset? Only by admitting to imperfect knowledge, making mistakes and learning from them, getting out of their comfort zone and engaging with difficulties.
Students are quick to sniff out inauthentic attitudes. As much as I’d love to be able to convince them it’s not just fine but important to screw up occasionally, that message will ring false if unaccompanied by the grace and humility to make and acknowledge errors. To overcome my reluctance, I challenge myself to do the following.
Make space for student expertise
A friend who knows me very well once remarked, half in jest, that I’d make a good cult leader. He knows how much I love to be right and persuade others of my rightness. Hence, it is a serious discipline to shut myself down (multiple times a day) and make space for student expertise. They know things I don’t, lots and lots of things.
Instead of always telling them what I know (ah, Sinai!) I make a practice of asking what they know. This throws up surprises (another thing perfectionists hate) and sends us on tangents. It is crucial; students need agency, need to know that what they know is valuable and integral to what they are learning.
Adopt a ‘learn with’ not ‘teach to’ approach
Reframing the educational encounter as a mutual learning experience creates opportunities for teachers and students alike. Though it is easy to fall back on the egotistical attitude of I’m the teacher, listen to me, this is precisely how not to inspire a growth mindset. Teaching to implies the teacher is omniscient; depending on the student, this obvious nonsense will discourage, annoy or spur indifference. (Why should I be intellectually adventurous and honest if my teacher isn’t?)
A learn with approach emphasizes that learning is ongoing for everyone, and that no matter how much a person knows about a subject, there is always more to discover.
Screw up and own it
One of the most valuable phrases in a teacher’s repertoire is, I was wrong.
It is also one of the hardest things (for me) to say.
Professional pride, ego, perfectionism all get in the way of admitting mistakes, but it is unutterably important that students have positive models for screwing up and owning it.
Teachers have to be willing to make and acknowledge mistakes to model the next, crucial step: learning from that mistake.
Acknowledging an error opens the door to correcting it; refusing to do so keeps students and teachers locked in false, precarious attitudes of expertise that hinder personal and collaborative learning.
Would I prefer to be a flawless, infinitely knowledgeable teacher? Of course.
Would that make me a better educator? Absolutely not.
Resisting perfectionism and owning errors will always be a struggle, but my students will ultimately benefit, and that’s what matters.
On Tuesday, around half-past-nine in the morning, my cat jumped onto the sink. An instant after I turned the tap, the power went out. Cue a three-day saga of landlord, electricians and plumbers clumping past my workspace and accusing glares from Teddy, the cat, as he nosed the unyielding tap.
Serendipitously, my three dry days coincided with reading from George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London with my students.
“It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty,” Orwell writes. “You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.”
Replace ‘poverty’ with ‘no running water’, ‘no electricity’, ‘no food’ or any other noun phrase related to a basic necessity. The principle stands.
To lack something one requires for survival is complicated, squalid, boring, low, crust-wiping. Whatever one’s other resources, the absence, scarcity or precarity of water, food, shelter, warmth, etc. is destructive.
Deprivation makes education harder to attain. Moreover, it robs whatever education one has acquired of its value.
In the elegiac opening sentence of ‘On Being Ill’ Virginia Woolf writes, “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
For when the lights of health go down, let’s substitute: when you can’t flush the toilet, or wash your hands.
My first unnerved thought, when I realized the water wasn’t returning at the flick of a fuse-switch, was, oh shit.
Literally. I have had severe IBS for over a decade. Proximity to a clean, functioning, private convenience is high on my list of essentials. Higher, in fact, than food. Food, once consumed, rapidly becomes a problem.
Not having water turned the next three days into a pathetic war of attrition with my internal organs, which I’d rather think of as friends than enemies. Boiled white rice became the meal of choice to minimize digestive demands.
Disarranged eating and hygiene stress combined to drag my mind away from classes. And I’m the teacher.
Imagine how much harder it is for students to cope with scarcity, and the fatal effect on attention.
Education helps us learn to make good choices. We learn to think critically, plan, weigh options, critique, etc. (ideally, anyway).
Orwell was well-educated and possessor of a rare mind. He argues, “a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.”
Science bears out this observation: the brain is around 2% of body weight but hoovers up 20% of the body’s glucose-derived energy (Mergenthaler, et al., 2014). Depriving the body of the energy it requires disproportionately affects the brain; an effect for which the body attempts to compensate by purloining glucose from other vital systems. Nevertheless, subpar nutrition takes a crowbar to cognitive functions (Glucose and The Brain: Improving Mental Performance, 2013).
Other forms of deprivation, such as lack of running water, may not have the same immediate physiological implications, but they swiftly cripple good intentions.
Not knowing when the water would be back, I couldn’t plan dinner, much less anything in the more distant future. Clothes and dishes needed washing, cat bowls needed refilling, plants needed watering, but it couldn’t be done nor anticipated. I learned to live in the moment, in the worst possible way.
Working from home, my attire tends more towards casual than smart. But there is a huge difference between informal and clean and plan dirty.
I take the ability to be clean, and therefore socially appropriate, for granted; fortunate am I.
Day one was tolerable but by day two the BO was bothering me. The morning of day three there were some unavoidable errands. After slathering on deodorant and shoving my grimy body into clean clothes I skulked out, coat zipped to the chin and masked. During the brief exchanges that followed, I stood as far away as courtesy allowed, marrow curling with self-consciousness.
I need to start donating to clean water projects, I thought. Then thought of all the people who live in places clean water projects don’t touch: places like Spain, the United States or the UK. In developed countries, broad access to running water, hygiene products, etc. masks — and no doubt exacerbates — the trauma of those who cannot access these fundamental resources.
Not being able to wash and groom adequately is uncomfortable on a personal level. I was hyperconscious of my bodily fluids and functions. But it is fatal to the ability to interact with clean human beings on an equal footing.
If I were a student who couldn’t wash, stuck in a roomful of freshly-scrubbed peers, I’d want to crawl under the floorboards. Or maybe I’d act out, to distract from my discomfort. I was fortunate to not have the precise experience as a kid, but I can imagine.
One thing is for sure: my mind would not be on my studies. I’d be counting the minutes till I could flee.
Thursday night, the kitchen tap spluttered to life. Borderline delirious, I pulled on the Marigolds and scrubbed the dishes piled in the sink, wiped the counters, refilled the cat bowls. After a long, hot shower I put on clean pajamas, sat on the sofa and stared at the unlit furnace, unsure what to do.
The tiredness that gripped me wasn’t ordinary, end-of-the-week stuff. My energy and volition were sapped, like I’d run a marathon.
The argument of Mani, et al. (2013) that “poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity… because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks” made perfect sense.
Education is wonderful thing. There isn’t much I’d rather do than teach and learn. But deprivation is its undoing.
As a teacher, and an individual, I have a responsibility to work towards a more equitable society where people have the resources they need to benefit from education.
How can educators support a more equitable society? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke
Great books help develop strong readers. And strong readers are capable of learning just about anything.
One of the joys and challenges of my job as a literature teacher is to continuously find exciting, engaging stories that will resonate with teen readers. To that end I read A LOT and am always on the look out for recommendations (if you have any, please jump to the comments and share!)
In 2022, I read more than 120 books. These 10 stood out as great novels for teenagers.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
Somehow, I missed this classic coming of age story when I was a kid. Shame. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a startling, unsentimental portrait of growing up poor in Brooklyn in the first years of the 20th century (the book ends with rumors of war). It doesn’t gloss the ugliness of abject poverty, alcoholism, sexual violence and ethnic conflicts yet it neither preachy nor maudlin. The characters are given the dignity of being complex, alive and changeable. Unmissable.
Cool for the Summer
by Dahlia Adler
This contemporary novel about a teenager girl exploring her sexuality is the best of a whole bunch I read on said theme. Middle schoolers desperately need affirmative, healthy messages about sex and sexual identity. The protagonist of Cool for the Summer is awkward, confused, obnoxious and authentic. She drinks, she swears, she screws up. She starts to figure out how to figure it out. When she finally kisses her new girlfriend at the end, there is a satisfying sense of hard-won self-awareness and acceptance.
The Astonishing Color of After
by Emily X.R. Pan
Apparently, this novel about a girl coping with the aftermath of her mother’s suicide is ‘magical realism’, a genre I would cross the road in front of a speeding semitruck to avoid, in most instances. In this instance, the fantastic and surreal are an effective (perhaps essential) means for communicating the displacement of grief. The protagonist’s gradual immersion in her mother’s language (Mandarin) and birthplace (Taiwan) offers hope and challenge, and, for the reader, insight into the complexities of biracial identity.
Long Way Down
by Jason Reynolds
This novel-in-verse won all the awards, and rightly so. It follows the 15-year-old protagonist as he takes a long, slow elevator ride towards destiny. Will he use the gun tucked in the back of his trousers to avenge his brother’s violent death? Or will he break The Rules? The pacing is taut, the use of language superb, and the voices unforgettable.
A Single Shard
by Linda Sue Park
This was officially my first foray into historical fiction about 12th century Korea. Let it be yours. The amount of research packed into every page makes me quiver with admiration for its author. Middle school kids probably won’t notice or care about all the work behind the scenes, though, they’ll be too busy chewing through the crisp, lovely prose about a young orphan’s apprenticeship to a master potter and the tough choices he has to make.
by Mieko Kawakami
I’m not sure if this is properly an adult novel with YA characters, or a YA novel. In any case, it’s fantastic for 8th graders, as it is a tough, unsparing exploration of issues that many kids face: bullying, divorce, parental absence, social awkwardness, sexual frustration and suicidal ideation. Don’t be misled though; it is anything but grim. There is life, and hope, which feels all the more authentic for being complicated.
All the Broken Pieces
by Ann E. Burg
Another novel-in-verse, told in the first person by a Vietnamese boy who was adopted by a couple in the United States after the war. The struggles with traumatic memories, guilt, racism and alienation are predictable. What is not is the heart-rending yet uplifting way he learns to cope, with a little help from his parents, a disabled baseball coach and a room full of veterans.
Frankly in Love
by David Yoon
This is just your typical hyper-ambitious YA novel that deals with racism, immigration, generational conflict, sex, friendship, LGBTQ+ identity and academic pressures. Just kidding. There is nothing typical about this fast, funny but also totally serious novel about a boy leading a double life: calculus-conquering son of Korean immigrants by day and kinda clueless, hopped-on-hormones American teenager who just wants to have fun.
by Libba Bray
To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, when the going gets weird, the weird go bovine. I stumbled across this while looking for postmodernist teen fiction and boy, is it that. A fast-and-loose riff on Don Quixote, it is packed with drugs, sex, bad decisions, talking garden gnomes, fatal neurological conditions, magical jazz artists and… really, just read it. Preferably in one sitting. It’s louche, loud and OTT: perfect for older teens.
The Story that Cannot be Told
by J. Kasper Kramer
Inspired by Romanian history and folklore, this ode to the power of words follows a girl growing up in the insane reality of the late days of Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. Peril is always close to hand, often due to her innocent mistakes, but stories have a way of helping make sense of things. And of changing the endings of real-life situations. This is a perfect book for kids who like historical fiction, folktales and fantasy.
Recommend a great book for middle schoolers in the comments, or Tweet @CilaWarncke
The following is an excerpt from a feature I wrote for Pennyblackmusic aboutCovid’s devastating effect on the live music industry. You can read the full feature at Pennyblackmusic.co.uk
“When COVID-19 mushroomed into a global pandemic, production work disappeared almost overnight. It is impossible to predict when it might return, or grasp the full repercussions for crews, artists, venues or fans. This article attempts neither to summarise nor forecast, but to reflect on the early days of this crisis in the hope we can look back on it from a better place.” -excerpt from ‘Production Crew Confront Coronavirus’, Pennyblackmusic, April 2020.
London: 11 February, 10:30AM Matt ‘Tag’ Tagliaferro adjusts his Airpods. Wet snow clings to the pavements outside his north London home. It is three degrees Celsius above freezing. “With these, I can get something done while I’m on the phone,” he says. “My screen time is way up this past year.”
Memphis, Tennessee: 5 March, 11:00AM “It felt good to have a break for a minute, but that got old.” Matt Brown gets up to refill his blue ceramic mug, and clears his throat. Later, he’ll strap on a parachute, grab a camera and follow tandem jumpers out of a plane, trying to hold the student’s awed face in frame as gravity hauls them all down.
London: 8 March, 10:00AM The phone screen shows him smiling, an old WhatsApp profile picture. “January was particularly hard,” Will Paterson says. “There was no sign of a return. Even the most motivated people had hard moments.”
Phoenix, Arizona: 13 March, 5:50AM The paper Holiday Inn coffee cups are stamped: “Start Fresh”. Chris Hall is trying. In half an hour, he’ll walk into the hotel conference room for the final written exams in his truck-driver training course.
There are two things that all these people have in common: They used to work in live music production. They never expected to be where they are now.
A year ago, we daydreamed that Covid-19 would vanish with the summer sun. What vanished instead was hope of a quick fix. Optimism became synonymous with magical thinking. The industry shutdown persisted like tinnitus.
According to trade publication Pollstar, the live music industry lost $30 billion of revenue in 2020. In Britain, some 10,000 people worked in music production, says Andy Lenthall, general manager of trade body the Production Services Association. In the United States, there were millions of such jobs. In the UK, the US and around the globe, most production workers lost their livelihoods.
“When it first happened, I felt numb, panicked. I watched the news all the time.” Nevertheless, Brighton-based publicist Nikki McNeill told her clients, which include Serbia’s Exit Festival, the Amsterdam Dance Event, Secret Solstice in Iceland and the Netherlands’ Lowlands Festival, that she would keep working with them, budget or no.
After the initial blow, ripples of Covid distortion kept spreading. “So much of life has changed,” Will Paterson, head of sales for several London music venues, reflects. “Nobody would have thought we’d curtail our lives the way we have.”
Tagliaferro, erstwhile touring guitar tech, and his partner split up, “a Covid casualty, I guess.”
Audio technician Matt Brown says: “The biggest challenge is boredom. I’m still learning to write code, trying to stay busy.”
Another audio tech (and my partner), Chris Hall has put in his share of 200,000-mile travel years. Suddenly, the world shrank to the distance to the nearest grocery store. Mundane tasks became big deals. His neck and back locked up in the winter chill.
“Some people found purpose in spending time with their partners and kids,” Lenthall says. “But being at home is a problem for people who aren’t used to being at home. There are a lot of single people in the business, a lot of people who are always on tour. Their flat is where they repack their suitcase.”
A Different Beat
Odd pockets of production work still exist: Brown kept his job at local church which started streaming its services. Photographer Andy Cotterill has spent more than two decades shooting music royalty. His portfolio runs from Public Enemy and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to Jarvis Cocker and Vivienne Westwood. Yet surviving Covid required other skills: “I was a top-grade student in woodworking at school so I did a few projects. People loved it. Someone asked me to do their kitchen, then a loft conversion. Before, if I’d done something else, I’d have felt like I failed at photography. I don’t think like that any more.”
Tagliaferro carried on fixing guitars. People who had guitars but never played them wanted them strung and tuned, bands stuck in London who’d started making new music, musicians whose prized instruments were in warehouses or shipping containers dug out beaters for an overhaul. “North London seemed to have a musical renaissance,” he says. “People wanted to do something productive and creative. It got to a point I couldn’t do it in my kitchen, so I rented a little space, built a few workbenches and fell into business, much like I fell into [touring] 15 years ago.”
This can-do, will-do attitude is characteristic. “You don’t want touring crew on the job market,” says Lenthall. “They are tenacious, hard working, they will get the job before you.” Delivery and logistics have absorbed a lot of bodies. “I’ve had groceries delivered by a lighting guy I know,” Lenthall remarks. “We have world-class production managers coordinating vaccination centres. [Telecom company] Openreach has production crew tackling its fibre optic installation backlog.”
Paterson has spent the past year overhauling everything from venue websites to internal communications to plumbing. “It has been a split,” he says. “Those who’ve had stuff to do – well, work helps. People who couldn’t work, like the operations staff, have done all sorts of things that have nothing to do with music, just to give themselves a purpose.”
Patchy Safety Nets
Many cannot step into new roles, though, whether for health or other reasons, and driving a delivery van doesn’t come close to replacing tour wages. Government support has not been universally sufficient or effective. “Through multiple technicalities, I don’t qualify for anything,” says Tagliaferro. “I’ve never heard the phrase, ‘sorry, you fall through the cracks’ so often.” He reckons half the industry people he knows don’t qualify for assistance.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Paterson says half the people he knows have left music.
In the US, aid is on a state-by-state basis. Brown got a small grant, about enough to cover three months’ rent in his neighborhood. He was on unemployment, briefly, until Tennessee reinstated a work-search requirement, with no exceptions for those whose industry had vanished. “What was I going to do? Work at the supermarket? Those jobs were already taken.”
Like so much related to Covid, a lot came down to chance. “I was lucky. The way my company is set up meant I qualified for government grants,” says McNeill. “I have friends who do the same thing but are excluded [from help] because of how they set up their business. It’s hard.”
Taylor Pfaff, the son of founders Bob E Pfaff and Suzanne Larson, is CEO and general manager; his landscape architect sister Cali (for whom the marvelous Cali’s Cuvee is named) is the winery’s creative director. Joe Wright remains head wine maker. One thing that hasn’t changed is Wright’s chronic self-effacement: “Taylor tells me what [wine] they need, by when and I make sure it’s grown, produced and available.”
When asked if it isn’t more complicated than that, he doubles down: “I have spread sheets: vines per acre, shoots per vine, clusters per shoot.” He pauses: “We get pretty close every year, barring gnarly weather.”
Barring, say, freak wildfires?
Left Coast Cellars, like so many Willamette Valley wineries, fell under a funereal smoke shroud in September 2020. “It was disgusting. There was nowhere to go. The fire was from central California to British Columbia, inland all the way to the Rockies. Really gross.”
Wright and the team opted to make wine regardless.“The fires affected how we made them, trying to mediate smoke taint,” Wright says. “The wines are not my usual style, so they feel a little alien but, smoke aside, it was an incredible vintage.” An early crop contributed to “low yields, wonderful concentration; stunning, electric wines.”
Still, 30% less volume than in 2019, plus the minor matter of Covid. “In March, April  we had no idea what was happening,” Taylor Pfaff says. “We had throw our budget out the window. It’s been triage planning.”
Two catastrophes in a 12 months is beyond the reach of planning. But Left Coast has two long-term projects propelling it forward. First, restoring 40 acres of old oak savanna; second, purchasing and planting a new vineyard.
I recall the sentinel oaks around the tasting room, a deer grazing between them, pretty as a Disney scene. “We always appreciated the trees but didn’t understand how ecologically important they are,” says Pfaff. “Only three percent of the Willamette Valley’s historic oak forest remains, and we have a big section of it.”
These acres had been overrun by “a 16-foot tall wall”, as Wright puts it, of invasive species like hawthorn, blackberries, Scotch broom and poison oak. “The Natives would burn, let things burn,” he adds. “The trees would survive but the under-story would get cleared out. That’s the regenerative effect of fire.”
These days, people are more concerned with fire’s destructive effect and indigenous-style land management is prohibited. Clearing the savanna was a slog of cutting, digging and hauling followed by seeding native grasses and flowers to create a “gorgeous, open, wild space.”
It was to this space Left Coast turned when Covid restrictions hit indoor operations. The tasting room became reservation-only and the oak savanna bloomed as a picnic spot. Guests could roll up with chairs, blankets, snacks and glasses, buy a bottle of wine and retreat to the leaf-dappled grass. “We wanted people to go out and enjoy the beautiful, quiet corners of the property and Covid kind of forced that,” Pfaff says. “Customers started to spread out and utilize the land. We are excited to see people enjoy the outdoor spaces.”
Fifty-three years ago Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis. He was in the city to support striking sanitation workers who marched carrying signs that bore a simple statement: I am a man. The slogan was chosen, striker Elmore Nickleberry told NPR, because “most of the time they’d call us boys.”
The night before his death, which was the night before a protest march, Dr King gave a speech famed for its rousing finale: ” I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Each term I share this speech with my students as a masterpiece of rhetoric, a master class in persuasive writing. I ask them to listen to the whole speech, including the less-often quoted part that made Dr King’s existence a threat to a certain segment of society.
“Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this. Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal…
“We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say,
“God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”
And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy — what is the other bread? — Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair…
But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.”
‘I have a dream’? Cool. Black kids and white kids joining hands? Fine.
Black citizens boycotting racist corporations and seeking economic empowerment? That’s dangerous talk.
When we honor Dr King, let’s honor him as a warrior for economic justice. He knew there was no chance of equality, freedom or social justice in a system predicated on economic oppression.
Listen to Dr King’s speech today. The truths and challenges he speaks are still with us.
“We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world,” he said that fateful night. “And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”
Portland, Oregon has a well-deserved reputation as a bookish city. Its literary climate springs, in part, from its actual climate. During the months of interminable rain it is natural to retreat to bookstores and libraries, or curl up at home with a favorite volume. The city’s creative energy, fueled by coffee, craft beer and local wine, helps foment works of imagination by local writers. Harvest the fruit of their labors at these book stores.
This small but venerable indie bookstore in the heart of Multnomah Village, on the west side, has been dishing out literary goodness since 1978. It sells new books, with a focus on fiction, children’s and young adult, travel, current events, and cooking. Plus it is a great space to browse for magazines, art supplies, puzzles, and cards.
This Northeast Portland stalwart is particularly strong on stocking local writers. Subject matter is wide open, with offerings of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels and more. You will find personalized material from local authors like Cheryl Strayed, who has the honor of a section dedicated to signed copies of her work.
No mention of the PDX literary scene would be complete without a nod to Powells’s, City of Books. As the biggest thing in local literary retail it is a huge draw for both writers and readers alike, who can spend happy hours browsing its immense color-coded collections. I’ve been hanging out at Powell’s since I was a kid (when I gravitated to Nancy Drew mysteries and Marguerite Henry horse stories). Whatever you go looking for, you generally come out with something different, which is most of the fun of it.
The most adorably clapboard, overstuffed used bookshop imaginable, Wallace Books is a throwback to the eclectic, eccentric wonderful bookstores of my childhood. Its charming exterior beckons you in and its sprawling collection rewards languid browsing. Take your time.
What’s your favorite indie bookshop? Big it up in the comments!
Ibiza, October 2016: What was left of my library was stacked on a slat-wood shelf awaiting collection; the clothes worth taking were crammed into a scuffed purple nylon suitcase; my car was one signature short of belonging to my ex-boyfriend, who was also adopting my cat.
In a few days I would embark for Memphis, Tennessee, a city I best knew as home of Sun Records. To pass time, I was reading ‘Respect Yourself’ (a loan from my Memphis-based boyfriend).
Robert Gordon’s meticulous account of the rise/fall/slip/slide of Stax Records was the history of an alien land and culture. ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’ rang a bell, maybe ‘Shaft’, but my knowledge of Memphis soul ended there. Embarrassment at this ignorance was a welcome distraction from more immediate anxieties.
Those anxieties faded but the embarrassment clings; as a born-and-raised Yankee, a music journalist no less, it is shaming to have been oblivious to one of the richest seams of my country’s musical culture. Shaming because – as ‘Respect Yourself’ and history report – it is no accident that Black musicians have been, and remain, ghettoised, denigrated, alienated.
That’s not why anyone should listen to Memphis soul though; not to pay tribute or broaden horizons. Listen to be immersed in music that grabs your gut and nether-parts. Listen to the sound of something at stake. Listen because, as the following 10 songs prove, it’ll turn you on and take you higher.
1. Sam & Dave – ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’
One of Stax’s most emblematic artists, Sam Moore and Dave Prater likely gave ‘soul’ its name with their hit ‘Soul Man’ whose irresistible rhythm, honking horns and gospel-inflected vocals characterised the genre. But it’s the brash, brassy ‘Hold On’ that sticks most in my mind. The playful entendre of the lyrics and opulent arrangements make it as endlessly rewarding as a good single malt.
2. William Bell – ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’
In 2013 the Obamas hosted a celebration of Memphis soul at the White House. One of the luminaries who performed was William Bell, singing a crème caramel rendition of his 1961 debut single, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’. A plaintive meditation on lost love, thematically, it embraces the blues but the shuffling percussion, Hammond organ and brass adornment mark it as a soul staple.
3. Staple Singers – ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’
Bob Dylan has spoken of his fascination with an early Staple Singers song, ‘Uncloudy Day,’ saying: “it was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard. It was like the fog rolling in…. It just went through me like my body was invisible.”
The father-daughter quintet of Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples and Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne returned the respect with this stark cover. Released in 1968, following the many violent oppressions of the Civil Rights movement, the Staple Singers’ voices invest Dylan’s words of warning with an implacable knowledge won of hard experience.
4. Ann Peebles – ‘Can’t Stand the Rain’
Royal Studios, the erstwhile home of Hi Records, which birthed this sublime heartbreak soul, still stands proud in south Memphis. About the size and shape of a brick cereal box, it’s a wonder Royal could contain much less capture the power and clarity of Peebles’ unadorned voice as it weaves through the echoing percussion and slow-finger bass crawl of this melancholy gem.
5. Otis Redding – ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’
Familiarity can make this song easy to not hear, make it easy to overlook its lyrical heft and musical daring. Recorded not long before Redding died in a plane crash, ‘Rolling Stone’ reported that some of his label mates, his manager and even Stax boss Jim Stewart thought it was too great a stylistic leap. Instead, the wistful evocation of blighted hopes and faded promise became a posthumous Billboard number one and million-selling single, fulfilling Redding’s prediction.
6. Al Green – ‘Tired of Being Alone’
The first of a string of gold records Al Green cut at Hi Records, ‘Tired of Being Alone’ is 2:43 of pure sensuality. With deep roots in gospel (there are half-a-dozen churches within a couple blocks of Royal Studios), the best soul music brazenly blurred the line between sacred and sexual. Few did it better than this satin-tongued singer, and rarely better than on this unapologetic pitch for carnal comfort. Though Green went on to become an ordained minister, his catalogue makes a strong case for the devil having the best music.
7. Johnnie Taylor – ‘Who’s Making Love’
It is worth watching the video to fully appreciate the wit and influences of Taylor’s 1968 chart-topper which became the Stax stalwart’s iconic hit. Wearing a sharp green suit and Cuban heels, Taylor looks straight to camera and, like a preacher addressing his flock, begins: “. The rhythm and delivery is pure gospel. The question, rather more earthy, is posed to men who are out catting around: “Who’s making love to your old lady, while you’re out making love?”
8. Albert King – ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’
A transcendent fusion of blues and soul, ‘Born…’ is a perfect example of the musical fertility of Stax Records. Co-written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, leader of Stax’ house band, Booker T. & the M.G.s, it was a minor Billboard hit on its 1967 release and gained wider notoriety when Cream released a version in 1968. Dozens of artists have covered it since, including Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, MC5 and Rita Coolidge. One of the most affecting is Bell’s 2016 interpretation on his album, ‘This is Where I Live’.
9. Booker T & the MG’s – ‘Green Onions’
In fewer than three minutes this instrumental, penned by a 17-year-old Booker T., announced the arrival of an epoch-defining musical talent and proved, by the by, that a Hammond organ can rock a party. Anchored by a blues bassline, the Hammond burbles while horns blurt above the simmering musical stew, embodying the genius amalgamation of blues, funk and gospel that is soul.
10. Isaac Hayes & Rev. Jesse Jackson — ‘If I Had a Hammer’ (Live)
In 1972 Stax Records hosted Wattstax, a day-long festival in Los Angeles honouring the rise of Watts from the ashes of the 1965 riots. Isaac Hayes closed his set with the Pete Seeger-pinned ‘If I Had A Hammer’ (also a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary). With the help of Jimmy Jones, Hayes transformed it into a Black power anthem. The track opens with five and a half minutes of Rev. Jesse Jackson, hypnotic as falling rain and electrifying as adrenaline, exhorting his people to pride and strength. As a sinuous, eerie organ melody burbles Jackson cries, “If I had a hammer, I’d ring out justice. If I had a hammer tonight our people would be respected and protected…”.
Picture a quiet Friday night in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Most of its 60,000 citizens are unwinding in familiar ways: having a drink with friends, going on a date, playing with their kids, or catching a movie. They’ll gossip, kiss, laugh, or maybe get tipsy before they fall into bed and when they wake up on Saturday life will continue as it always has. Tonight, though, 99 people have set aside their usual end-of-the-week rituals to go to the Comedy & Magic Society’s monthly show at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.
Founded in 2005 the Comedy & Magic Society is the joint project of four hard-working professionals: Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Wood. They have over 100 years of cumulative magic experience and each of them could (if he weren’t too modest) justifiably claim to be one of the world’s finest magicians. But this is only part of the reason why one Friday of every month 99 people turn up at the Arts Barn, eyes popping with anticipation.
Many of them have been before because live magic performed at this level is strangely addictive. You get hooked on the thrill of anticipation and the little adrenaline bursts of surprise. It isn’t something you can DVR, download or Google, so people come back – and bring their friends. First time visitors to the sturdy red-brick former stable building enter a little more cautiously. Some are excited, others are skeptical; some of them want to be entertained, others have notebooks tucked in their pockets. All are curious.
The magic begins as the audience mingles and makes its way to the alternating bright purple and lime green seats. Nick DeCuites and George Woo, the Comedy & Magic Society’s resident close-up men, circulate through the theater picking pockets, popping cards or conjuring the unexpected. Grown-ups laugh and gasp. Kids crane their necks to follow the flying fingers but their eyes can’t move fast enough. Then the lights dim, the curtain rises and the Producer arrives on stage. CMS’s four co-producers take it in turn to host and emcee the shows. Tonight let’s say it is Bob Sheets, the avuncular comedian with a grin as big as the Ritz.
If you want to know anything about magic or, indeed, the history of American popular entertainment in the 20th century, Bob is your man. He was born in California, the land of prospectors, dreamers, and professional make-believers. One of these was Paul Winchell, a ventriloquist who also patented the first artificial heart. Inspired by Winchell’s TV show, Bob taught himself ventriloquism. But when his dad bought him a magic kit he gave up voice-throwing because, at the ripe old age of 10, he thought it was “kid stuff”. Magic, on the other hand, merited study.
The wisecracking schoolboy (“I always had to have the last word,” he chuckles) used to rush home after class to practice new tricks. Unlike most kids, he didn’t mind getting sent to his room because it meant more time to perfect his craft. Bob joined the San Diego Junior Magic Society. At 13 he was performing at parties and clubs; at 15 he was a seasoned performer – as well as being America’s youngest Fuller Brush Man. Door-to-door sales and magic require many similar skills: you have to engage with strangers, win them over, put them at ease, and convince them you have something they need. Bob, with his effervescent enthusiasm, was darn good at it. Academics were a different matter. “I was a D+ student,” he says. “They only let me graduate because they knew there was no point in keeping me.”
Bob finished high school in 1968 when the military was snapping up men to send to Vietnam. He joined the Navy but was discharged 17 days later when they found he was allergic to the regulation wool blankets. Instead, he went down a path trod by many legendary entertainers: he joined the circus. Between pounding tent stakes, driving trucks, and packing down, he polished his performance skills in the main ring and his close-up skills as a sideshow act. Working with the circus was more than a chance to perfect tricks. It was Bob’s initiation into a centuries-old fraternity of itinerant entertainers whose heritage runs from medieval minstrels and court jesters to vaudevillians and, of course, illusionists.
All four of the Comedy & Magic Society co-producers are enmeshed in the traditions and history of magic. This enthusiasm shapes and spurs their careers, and is integral to the CMS ethos. Brian Curry, the youngest member (Mark describes him the D’Artengean of their troupe of magic musketeers) began his education at the renowned Denny & Lee Studio in Baltimore, and was tutored by card wizard Peter Galinskis. “He’d make me rehearse one little move over and over,” Brian says. “He wouldn’t let me start a new one till I learned the last one.” Brian was a young teenager at the time, but magic was already more than a hobby. “It helped me break out of my shell,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at talking to people and it was a way for me to communicate.”
The son of an IBM executive, Brian spent most of his childhood in Tokyo and Paris. Moving between countries on a regular basis fostered independence and resilience – traits that stand him in good stead as a professional magician. As soon as he learned his first trick in sixth grade he was hooked, and regularly spent two or three hours a day practicing. “It was luck,” Brian says of his career. “So much luck.” But, like his co-producers, Brian works ferociously hard for his good luck. When he was 15 he contacted Mark Phillips at a magic convention and asked if he could show him a competition routine. It was a memorable meeting. Mark turned up with a handful of other famous magicians and the youngster promptly bombed. “His act was a disaster,” Mark laughs. “He had problems you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.” Still, they took him to dinner afterwards.
Years later that friendship would help form the Comedy & Magic Society but first Brian had to perfect his craft. Luckily (this time it really was luck) Clyde’s, a local restaurant, booked a magician who also happened to be a conman. The conman/magician got busted and his prison sentence was Brian’s big break. The shy 15- year-old went to work doing close-up magic for diners waiting to eat. Seventeen years later Brian still works there, delighting Clyde’s hungry customers. He credits the gig with helping pay his way through college – and honing his skills so he’d never have to use his degree.
None of the Comedy & Magic Society men took for granted that they would be successful as professional magicians. Mark Phillips, a corporate magician who spends most of his time performing at industry trade shows and events, holds a degree in microbiology. “My parents wanted me to have something to fall back on,” he explains. By the time Mark went to university, though, he’d already laid the foundation for a future far from microscopes and laboratories. His father was a career Army officer and Mark was raised in military outposts like Fort Hood, TX; Fort Leavenworth, KS and Fort Huachuca, AZ. As the smallest kid in the class, Mark was a self-professed class clown and discovered that doing magic was a way to get noticed and make people laugh.
Also, you had to make your own entertainment on remote military bases. Fort Huachuca, where they moved when Mark was in eighth grade, is in arid high-plains country 15 miles north of the Mexican border. There isn’t much to do there, or in neighboring Sierra Vista where Mark went to high school. One of his activities was playing trumpet and trombone in the school band, which often performed on base. Mark, ever the over-achiever, would perform magic on stage while the band was taking its break, thus earning his stripes in front of a tough military audience.
By the time he earned his degree Mark knew he wanted to pursue magic full-time and moved to New York to make his way as a corporate entertainer. It was the boom years of Wall Street and Mark dove into his profession with the same gusto as the traders and bankers around him. The dizzy world of high finance has long since spun itself out while Mark, by contrast, has honed his craft and career with discipline that must make his dad proud. He attributes his perfectionism to a lifetime of playing classical and orchestral music (he now plays the French horn, which has a reputation for being fiendishly difficult to master). “I have very high expectations of skill level,” he says. “A performance has to be well-rehearsed.”
These expectations infuse every Comedy & Magic Society show. Ask any of the coproducers what their biggest challenge is, as a magician, and they’ll tell you it is trying to change an audience’s expectations. Most people’s experience of live magic is limited a performer at a kid’s birthday or a friend showing off card tricks. “People don’t see much good magic so winning them over can be an uphill battle,” Bob says. As a result, CMS is incredibly protective of its audience’s experience: “We don’t lower the bar. Our guests are professional magicians and they have to hit a certain level before we let them in front of our audience,” he adds. The Gaithersburg Arts Barn shows usually feature one or two guest performers, in addition to Mark, Barry, Brian or Bob, and these guests are culled from the co-producers extensive contact books.
“Bob’s been a big name in the magic world for a long time and has a lot of friends,” Mark says. “If anyone is passing through he’ll buttonhole them and say ‘come do our show, it’s a lot of fun’.” Fun is one word to describe the CMS shows. Others are: exciting, social, electric, family-friendly and, above all, funny. Most magic shows are about highlighting the dexterity and skill the magicians. Add comedy, though, and the whole dynamic changes. The relationship between audience and performer shifts. Barriers melt away. As a magician, it is tempting to treat the audience like the enemy: you want to fool them, put them on the wrong foot. Mixing comedy and magic, however, requires a different mind-set. “It’s easier when the audience goes with you willingly,” Mark explains. “You need charm and personality. You need to be a good communicator.”
Communication skills don’t come naturally to everyone, though – not even magicians. Barry Wood, the group’s resident actor and improv expert, says he was “kind of a loner at school. Magic was a hobby I could retreat into.” He’d go off to the library and read about the history of magic and the lives of famous performers. “I was fascinated by every aspect of the art,” he recalls. This fascination drew him out of his shell and into Barry Taylor’s legendary magic shop. The elder Barry became his mentor, and Wood credits him with taking an introverted kid and putting him on the path to being a world-class performer. Young Barry learned that communication could help smooth out a less-than-perfect trick. “At first, I was just trying to fool people, but once I learned about presentation the challenge was to weave a story and connect with my audience.”
The best magic is about making connections and a gifted performer with enough tricks up his or her sleeve can weave a spell anywhere. After an apprenticeship that included working weekends at Barry Taylor’s shop, Barry Wood filled in for a friend doing magic at a pizza restaurant. He left his first paying gig “on cloud nine,” with a bellyful of pizza and cash in his pocket. The die was cast. Barry went to college and majored in marketing but he funded his degree by performing magic. “I always enjoyed giving class presentations – maybe in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to do magic,” he recalls. Still, the penny didn’t drop until Barry began looking for a marketing job after graduation. When interviewers found out he did magic they were intrigued; they wanted to talk about shows they’d seen, or tricks they knew. Many asked why he wasn’t doing magic, since it was clearly his passion. “I thought, ‘maybe they’re right.’” To his relief his parents were supportive, and Barry began his professional career in earnest.
One of his formative experiences was working with Bob Sheets at the Brook Farm Inn of Magic, a restaurant/magic haunt in Maryland run by Bob Sheets and partner Steve Spills. At first, Bob and Barry seem like polar opposites: Bob is the bluff, ebullient journeyman firmly rooted in the great American tradition of life on the road. Barry is reserved, thoughtful and precise; he likes bookstores and wineries with nice views. But they have a lot in common when it comes to magic. Both cite street magic as the ultimate challenge. “If people don’t like you, they walk away,” says Bob. “It doesn’t get any tougher, or more honest, than that.” Barry, who taught himself fire-juggling to avoid dead time while doing street performances at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, agrees. Always eager to develop his skills, Barry began to study acting and improv. He joined an improv group then helped found comedy sketch troupe Dropping The Cow.
“Barry can do anything,” Brian says. “You would never pick him out in a crowd as a professional entertainer. He’s so quiet and humble. Then he gets on stage and destroys. It’s awesome.” Brian jokes that he’d like for Barry to suck at something “because it would make me feel better” but they are more alike than different. Both have a passion for working with kids – which is probably only slightly less demanding than street performing. Brian does school assembly shows, including a magical mathematics review and a book club, while Barry works with a professional counselor doing an anti-bullying show that tours schools in the greater Washington DC region. He is also a long-standing member of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program. To Barry, cheering up sick children is the apotheosis of his magical art: “I’ve found an audience for all the skills I learned that were inner-focused, that I learned for myself. I don’t know if it’s destiny or what, but now I have an opportunity to use my abilities in a positive way, whether it’s helping school kids dealing with tough situations, or making a child laugh in his hospital bed and seeing the relief on his parents’ faces. I’m lucky to be able to use my abilities in a positive way.”
Ask any of Barry’s colleagues and you’ll hear similar sentiments, in different terms. Brian, along with Mark and Bob, does regular gigs on cruise ships, and delights in the way magic transcends culture and nationality, helping him unify a room full of strangers who don’t even speak the same language. Mark gets a buzz out of magic’s ability to transform the ordinary: “When an audience sees magic, they think about things they don’t usually think about. They have a chance to think about the everyday things they take for granted.”
This passion for making the impossible real fuels all of the Comedy & Magic Society members. Make no mistake: magic is hard work. They travel a lot and pulling together their beloved Arts Barn shows requires commitment and sacrifice. “We work so much we’re rarely in town at the same time,” Bob says. “But when we are it’s a killer show.” In addition to long stints on the road they face the physical and mental rigor of regular performance. One of Mark’s corporate trade-shows, for example, involves eight-hour days of repeat performances to an ice-cold audience that has to be won over; over and over again. And anyone who knows kids can imagine how tough it is to convince school kids to take an interest in math.
In addition to the challenges of the work itself, is the challenge of finding or creating work. “You have to be really self-motivated,” says Brian. “There is no manual telling you how to make a living. You have to constantly evaluate how you run your business, your show, your website….” They each have their own way of thriving: Mark taught himself German so he could work trade shows there; Brian has a crop of entrepreneurial side projects; Bob spent 15 years mixing drinks and conjuring surprises as a bar-tending magician; Barry does everything from one-man shows, to toddler’s birthdays to Presidential inaugurations.
To some it might seem like a hard way to earn a living but Barry, Mark, Bob and Brian brim with joy and enthusiasm for what they do. “I’m grateful to be getting paid to do something I love,” says Barry. “I’m blessed.” This gratitude and energy flows through their work both as individual magicians, and as the Comedy & Magic Society collective. That is what lends the air inside the Arts Barn its sprinkle of magic dust one Friday a month. Magic, as performed by the CMS and friends, is the art of celebrating what’s possible. “Magic can lift people’s feet off the ground, if only for a moment,” says Bob. “You never know what the result will be. You get a kid in front of an audience and he realizes it’s okay to get in front of people, it’s okay for people to laugh at – and with – you. It gives him confidence.”
Children and adults alike leave the Arts Barn wide-eyed and flushed with laughter not just because of the flawless routines and peerless patter, but because Brian, Bob, Barry and Mark are walking, talking, juggling proof that you can fulfill your dreams and that the world is alive with possibilities. “Magic reminds us there are a lot of things in the world we take for granted,” Mark says. “If we experience a moment of magic and wonder in a performance we start paying attention to the wonder in other parts of our lives.”
A version of this piece was published in Transition, a Canadian magazine on mental health.
In 1980, the year I was born, the board of directors of the American Psychiatric Association voted to allow pharmaceutical companies to offer paid symposiums at its annual conference. Thirty years later I was sitting on coarse beige upholstery in a doctor’s surgery in Glasgow. “Are you sure the results are normal?”
He sighed and repeated that my blood, hormones, iron level and thyroid were all fine.
Disappointment lodged in my oesophagus. Please tell me something’s wrong: hypothyroidism, Vitamin D, anaemia, hormone imbalance, anything.
I had moved to the rain-wracked west coast of Scotland to do a Master’s degree in writing but, after a few weeks, I could barely read. Obsessive thoughts snarled and snapped: you’re stupid, you’re hopeless, you’re a failure. Glasses leapt from my hands at my part-time waitress job. Burns crept up my arms as my reflexes slowed. My boss reprimanded me for being “snappish”. I craved sugar, wolfing my flatmate’s ice cream and cereal then slinking out the next morning to replace them. I slept 12, 15 hours a day, exhausted by the weight of my body.
One more test. The doctor gave me a single sheet of paper. I tend to score well on tests; this was no exception. The Beck Depression Inventory1 is a common screening for depression, intended to “identify [its] presence and severity”2. He skimmed my responses about sadness, guilt, irritability, hopelessness, sleep disturbances, and suicidal thoughts.
“I’ll write you a prescription.”
“Is there someone I can talk to?”
Referral in hand, I walked to another basement office.
That doctor cut me off after ten seconds: “Do you want a prescription?”
He huffed audibly. “If you want to talk to someone go to the counselling service. All the other American students are on meds.”
In Anatomy of an Epidemic award-winning journalist Robert Whitaker describes how the “notion that [pharmaceutical] ‘magic bullets’… would bring miracle cures”3 became psychiatric dogma — despite the fact no one fully understands the organic processes of mental illness. Do psychotropic “bullets” hit their target? If so, what happens? No responsible physician would prescribe thyroid and hormone treatment without a lab test. But nobody checked my serotonin or dopamine levels. My doctor had never seen me before. He knew nothing of my family, temperament, or situation, but on the basis of 21 questions offered a drug that would dramatically, maybe irreversibly, alter my brain chemistry.
The most common antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI)4 like Prozac. As it happens, I spent several years toying with a fast-acting antidepressant. Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, like SSRIs, boosts serotonin levels in the brain. It obliterates unhappiness in a rush of euphoria, confidence, clarity and empathy. Everything is better: music, lights, colour, conversation, friendship, sex, and cigarettes.
Until the comedown.
“Suicide Tuesday” was a semi-serious joke among club kids. We compared notes on nightmares, hallucinations, and memory loss. We counted the days till jaws stopped aching and appetites returned.
Prozac is legal but brain chemistry is no respecter of legislation. Trials on SSRIs show that “rats fed high doses… ended up with neurons that were swollen and twisted like corkscrews”5. The human evidence is compelling: the Food and Drug Administration received 39,000 complaints about Prozac in the nine years following its approval, including reports of suicidal and homicidal outbursts, “psychotic depression, mania, abnormal thinking, hallucinations, hostility, confusion, amnesia, convulsions, tremors and sexual dysfunction.”6
Instead of antidepressants I took the second doctor’s advice and went to the student counselling service. Every Friday afternoon between three and four (after dark, for most of those moths) I went to a basement room where a white-faced, gold-rimmed Seth Thomas clock sat in a disused fireplace. A tiny glass pitcher and two small glasses stood on the hearth beside a box of Tork tissues. I had fold them in half to blow my nose.
“I feel like I’ve lost control.” I threw another fistful of sodden tissues in the bin. “You know the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’? It feels like that.”
Words that come to mind now are no less true for being clichéd. Nouns: storm, cloud, void, chasm, maelstrom, black hole. Verbs: choke, crush, frighten, smother, horrify. Adjectives: miserable, catatonic, helpless, damaged, trapped, angry, sad, frustrated, lost.
In 1988 the United States Food and Drug Association green-lighted Prozac and America’s National Institutes of Mental Health set up the Depression Awareness Recognition and Treatment (DART) program. Its mission was to promote “greater acceptance of depression as a disorder” and, perhaps not incidentally, spread the word that “antidepressants produced recovery rates of ‘70% to 80% in comparison with 20% to 40% for placebo.”7 Eli Lilly, which held the patent on Prozac, helped pay for eight million DART brochures that highlighted the merits of serotonin-boosting pharmaceuticals.
If you’re trying to dodge the magic bullet you need other weapons. I’ve been running since age 13, hooked on the peace and clarity that follows the effort. In Glasgow I got up at 5:30AM, pulled on ski socks, leggings, sweatshirt, jacket, hat, gloves and battered Sauconys then ran for an hour. I swapped my restaurant job for a coffee shop and found comfort in the routine of making espresso, toasting sandwiches, and gossiping with the regulars. At home I baked caraway rye bread, bagels, and lemon cookies to combat the chill seeping through the single-glazed windows. I bought kilos of oranges and taught myself to make marmalade; experimented with vegan mac-and-cheese and coconut milk smoothies. On black afternoons I tiptoed up the ice-slick hill to the gym and did squats, bench presses and seated rows. I used holiday photos for bookmarks and saved quotes on index cards: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside you,” wrote Kafka.
“In a  World Health Organization study of the merits of screening for depression,” writes Whitaker: “Those diagnosed and treated with psychiatric medications fared worse – in terms of their depressive symptoms and their general health – over a one-year period than those who weren’t exposed to the drugs.”
One year is 365 days of wondering why am I still breathing? It’s a long time to resist the temptation to drag the tip of a knife down your arm just to see how it feels. I scurried and feinted but depression was a patient cat to my mouse. There were still tears in writing workshops, still mornings huddled beneath the espresso machine gnawing my fingers, still cake binges followed by penitent cups of vegetable broth.
Depression is a black-hearted octopus tenderly, insistently probing for weakness. Resistance is the only secret to survival; fight the beast with every cheap, inadequate weapon at your disposal. Work and running were my best allies. I got better at snatching pleasure and being selfish about delight. When insomnia chipped at my fragile defences, I went to the doctor for sleeping pills. At the end of the year I left Glasgow, bruised but stronger. A magic bullet might have been swift relief. But the grit, patience, and humility I learned on my way are side-effects worth having.