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    "Marley and Me" and Me

    Monday, January 5, 2009, 5:58 PM [General]

    In the winter of 1946-47, "It's a Wonderful Life" was marketed by its studio as a happy, feel good, coming-home-from-the-war-at-Christmas movie.

    Ummm, not exactly.

    Contrary to popular belief, "IAWL" wasn't a bomb at the box office per se.  But (like, say, "Seven Pounds" for Will Smith), it didn't draw as well as other Jimmy Stewart movies, and was considered a disappointment.  Little wonder, with the ads that didn't even hint at what the movie was REALLY about.  (Just like Will Smith's movie, for that matter, if you've seen it.)

    So if you just look at the TV ads and the print posters for "Marley and Me," with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, you'd think it's a cute movie full of hijinks about a crazy dog.  Something you'd bring the six-year-old to for their entertainment and then sleep through.

    Uh, no.

    And fortunately, unlike in 1946, people are seeing through the advertising, passing on the real (and very adult) themes of the movie by word-of-mouth -- though yes, Marley the dog indeed does some wacky things -- and this has become the biggest hit of the holidays. 

    And deservedly so.

    For those who don't know, "Marley and Me" is based on the memoir of former Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and Philadelphia Inquirer reporter John Grogan.  It's about his family -- including his wife Jenny, also a reporter but later a full-time mom to three kids, and one very rambunctious Labrador retriever. 

    That would be Marley (named after Bob).

    Grogan's book -- and the movie -- cover his family through Marley's entire lifespan.  I repeat, for anyone thinking of bringing their six-year-old, ENTIRE LIFESPAN.  Think "Old Yeller" if my hint isn't strong enough.  Not appropriate for kids, and a three-hanky weeper for most adults.  (I was blubbering like silly, I'm not ashamed to admit.)

    For another thing, kids might actually think Labs destroying their owners' houses -- over and over and over again -- is cute.  It's not.  Marley really was in a lot of ways, as John Grogan (semi-, but only semi-) affectionately called him, "the world's worst dog."  At one point in the movie, Aniston's character threatens to leave Wilson's over the dog -- at a time when they have two young kids, mind you -- and given the chaos a 100-pound creature who thinks the entire house is his chew-toy routinely causes, you believe it.

    But here's the thing -- the movie is really less about Marley (though it is about Marley, too, and not just his tendency to tear into anything non-human in sight) than it is about the Grogans.

    And about life.

    Some critics of "Marley and Me" say that the movie is too episodic and that nothing really happens during the movie. 

    By Hollywood standards, that's true -- but I think that's exactly the point, and why "Marley and Me" is such a remarkable film in a time of shoot-'em-up action movies. 

    It IS about "real life."  Which is hardly boring.

    Just in the time span of the movie (which, for dramatic purposes, includes all true elements but is slightly out of order from real life), Jenny and John get married in snowy Michigan where they are both cub reporters, decide to seek journalism jobs in Florida instead, Jenny is at first a star reporter while John struggles, John is advised by his common-in-Hollywood but rare-in-real-life editor that he would make a better columnist, John's randy bachelor colleague advises him to get a dog to postpone being a father, John does and the dog is of course a disaster (thus the movie title), then he and Jenny do start their family (Marley actually plays a touching role in that process -- get your minds out of the gutter, folks), John writes about Marley's adventures in his new column and becomes famous, John and Jenny realize that their raffish house is both too small for their family and in a declining neighborhood, so they move, John becomes the sole breadwinner and Jenny becomes overwhelmed as a stay-at-home mom (see the scene about threatening to leave him), then John -- ever-restless -- decides to move to Philadelphia with Jenny's blessing, yet is not entirely happy there, either.

    To my mind, that's an awful lot of stress in the Grogans' life.  But everything in that litany could have happened, more or less, to anyone in the theater.  None of the twists and turns are Hollywood shockers from left field.  And that makes the movie ring clear and true.

    Grogan has said that his book is NOT a "dog book."  His newest memoir, in fact, extends the story of his life back into his childhood and on toward his meeting Jenny, and has nothing to do with Marley.

    Rather, he said, the reason the Sun-Sentinel columns about Marley were so popular -- and the role Marley ultimately plays in the book and the movie -- is that life, like a Labrador who rebuffs all training, is inherently messy and disorganized.  Plans change.  In the movie, John constantly looks back at his bachelor friend (played with perfect casting by Eric "Dr. McSteamy" Dane) getting scoop after scoop and joining the New York Times, and wonders if he would have had that if he had stayed a reporter rather than a columnist (or whether his talented wife would have as well if she had not given up her career for the sake of family). 

    Because John is played by Owen Wilson, you believe the "Even though I'm an adult, am I really grown up?" vibe.  And because his wife is played by Jennifer Aniston at her absolute most appealing, and he is and always has been besotted by her, he realizes finally that he has the life right for him.  He loves all his kids dearly.

    Including Marley -- who the human Grogan kids grow to adore, even if he destroys their stuff as well -- because as dangerous as Marley is to property, he is even more comforting and loving of all the people in his life, adult and child.  There are some truly touching moments those who believe animals know people's hearts will respond to instantly, that justify why Grogan changes his mind about Marley (verbally; he always loved him dearly, of course) and calls him a "great, great dog."

    Which makes the end -- where the family is living on a Pennsylvania farm and Marley finally has all the room he needs to let out his restless energy -- that much more agonizing.  Because when life is messy, it can be terribly sad as well.

    And don't I know it.

    Not only do I have a beloved dog who is literally a lifesaver to me (and one who is ever so slightly slowing down, I've noticed, in Florida's warm winter weather -- Schumie is 52 in dog years), not only do I now live in South Florida besotted by my love as I try to blend into her family, but I was literally a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer many years ago.  In the very newsroom shown in the movie (sometimes, at least, when I worked out of downtown).

    So I know the mindset of the man-child Wilson plays.  I've been there.  The doubt in John's constant tendency at self-editing himself as well as his columns -- "Did I do the right thing?" -- is no false note, in part because it proves more exasperating to himself even than to his wife.  (Grogan has said, quite seriously, that if he'd known "Marley and Me" would sell 5 million copies, he'd have edited it a lot more carefully.)  Paralysis by overanalysis, we call it in therapy.

    What Marley brings to the equation -- as does Schumie -- is unconditional love.  They say if you're ready to receive unconditional love, get a dog; if you're ready to give unconditional love, have a child.  Marley was such a mess, though, the Grogans had to learn both sides of the equation just for him -- and thus were ready in a sense psychologically when the first of their three bundles of joy arrived.

    As someone with depression, I needed unconditional love.  My dear dachshund was able to provide it at some horrendous times in my life.  (And just as dachshunds have been my family breed, Grogan now has two more -- far more gentle and less energetic -- Labs.)  I was never able to get to the stage John and Jenny Grogan did of starting a family -- but in a sense maybe I did, because I was willing to take on a stepfather role when I finally found my soulmate after nearly 40 years.

    Love matters more than the messes of life, Marley-created or otherwise.  And THAT is why I was bawling Saturday night during the pivotal scene.  Because love may not be easy, but pooper-scoopering all of life's untidiness couldn't possibly replace it.

    "Marley and Me" will win no Oscars.  But neither did "It's a Wonderful Life."  In my mind, it's an instant classic all the same.
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    Who to Read

    Tuesday, December 30, 2008, 7:43 PM [General]

    If the Doxieman Blog, like U.S. News and World Report, is slowly converting from a weekly to a monthly, the least I can do is provide you some alternate folks for you to read instead.

    As it happens, I already did (despite some Bnet members' attempts to spam me about it, perhaps for not being on the list themselves):

    http://community.beliefnet.com/journals/sblog_id/post_id/833/24263

    I am particularly a fan these days of DesertSutra and New Age Cowboy -- Julia of DesertSutra reflecting the angst and depression of my marriage-ripped-asunder days in D.C., Brian of New Age Cowboy my libertarian, (newly) Sun Belt, opinionated-in-a-good-way side.  Twin facets of my personality, as it were.  (And neither of whom are particularly active on Beyond Blue, in case you are wondering.)

    If I thought of them as music, DesertSutra would be Tina Turner -- alternately defiant and resigned in her post-Ike comeback in the early '80s -- and New Age Cowboy would be Garth Brooks, full of fun rodeo and drinking stories but with a message as well ("We Shall Be Free," "The Change").

    But even if you don't like Tina or Garth, they're both great.  Read 'em and weep -- and laugh sometimes, too.

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    New Year's Resolution

    Tuesday, December 30, 2008, 2:52 PM [General]

    I referred to the Third Habit of Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" in my last post -- "first things first." Covey clarifies this by saying that you must avoid the danger of putting the urgent (the short-term) before the important (the long-term).

    And I've realized, sadly, since I've been in Miami, I may be doing just that.

    Beliefnet and Beyond Blue have been an incredible support arm for me for two years. Therese Borchard in particular is an amazing, amazing woman. And recently, longtime Bnet member Lapatosu reminded me she had first "met" me online during the floods in New Brunswick, New Jersey in early 2007.

    We joke on the Beyond Blue social networking group about what's going on in the group versus what's going on "IRL" (in real life).

    When online support groups help you deal with real life, they are engaging -- indeed, a life-saver -- lifting us at least temporarily out of crippling depression.

    But when they intrude on real life -- when real life is already bursting with activity and needs and wants, and the genuine enthusiasm you feel online nevertheless sometimes feels like a misplaced obligation compared to the joyous if hectic other obligations in your life -- well, Covey's admonition comes to mind.

    And in the spirit of "first things first," trying to get used to a new city, to living with a woman who like me is used to being without adult companionship, to finding a new job, and not least becoming a stepfather figure to two slightly skeptical teen-age boys, I have to make a sad but determined New Year's Resolution -- to reduce my involvement in Beliefnet, probably considerably.

    Call it another cutback in the economy (LOL). But it probably means you'll only get the Doxieman Blog twice a month instead of twice a week; that my pop-ins on Beyond Blue will be 20 minutes instead of two hours; and that in general I need to keep Ana and the boys foremost in my attentions.

    Don't get me wrong -- if I need support, I'll be there. I know where to go. And when I really have something to say, you'll still see it on the Doxieman Blog.

    But I realized how ridiculous the situation had become when I kept thinking of my goal of having 10,000 page hits for the 14 months from November 2007 to New Year's Eve -- and feeling a bit let down when the count petered out at 9,300 or so. I thought, how unhealthy is it to care about THAT?!?!

    Yes, I know I've gotten blogging awards (which I hugely, enormously appreciate) both in and out of Beliefnet, but of course, I'm not getting paid for this (as even, albeit with a tiny sum, Therese is). Which doesn't mean I can't or don't want to do it; it's just that, in priority, I need to remember who will be paying me literally (my new job, from whence it may come) and emotionally (my new family). And they must come first.

    They are the important ones.

    Please don't misunderstand. The people of Beliefnet are always important to me -- very much so -- but the process has increasingly become urgent, at least the way Covey defines the term.

    And the number one rule we put on ourselves at Beyond Blue is to look out for our own mental health. Right now, I think this is what I need to do.

    As for my SECOND New Year's Resolution of 2009, in what will be a tough year for everyone due to the economy, I pray that all my beloved friends (and you are beloved, still and always) here on Beliefnet have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you MUST, and the wisdom to know the difference.

    And I will resolve to do the same.

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    Annus Horribilis/Annus Mirabilis

    Tuesday, December 30, 2008, 2:25 PM [General]

    The term annus horribilis, while Latin in origin, essentially is a neologism invented in 1992 by Queen Elizabeth II to describe the awful year for the Royal Family and the United Kingdom.

    And what a year it was. Princess Anne and her husband divorced, Prince Andrew and Princess Sarah, and most notably Prince Charles and Princess Diana, separated, Windsor Castle caught on fire, and the pound sterling was devalued, essentially (a bit like the financial crisis this year in America did to the GOP) destroying the credibility of Britain's mighty Conservative Party for a generation to come.

    Annus mirabilis, on the other hand, was much more ancient in origin. It was used to describe the year 1666 in the United Kingdom -- because, despite the fact that London burned to the ground (seemingly a far more annus horribilis than 1992), the country survived what was thought to be the Devil's Year, given the "666" numerology.

    Well, I didn't have to wait 326 years between my miracle year and my horrible year. I only had to wait one. And delightfully, they were in the reverse order.

    People who have read my interview with Therese Borchard in November 2007, and have followed the Doxieman Blog since then, know the elements of the story -- I was unemployed (professionally) for an entire year from early 2007 on, lost my apartment, lost what little faith I had left in G-d, moved in with my skeptical mother and intensely (even violently) hostile stepfather, was so outcast from my family that I was essentially disinvited to my cousin's wedding, worked a non-professional job for the first time in my life, and prepared a suicide kit of powerful antipsychotic drugs. (Which I later discovered would probably "only" have put me into a coma. Yikes.)

    But even in an annus horribilis good things can happen. The Labour Party picked John Smith as its new leader, a sober-minded man who made Britons believe in Labour as a governing party again. You don't know his name because he died before he could be elected prime minister, so his young protege -- a man named Tony Blair -- was instead. A man who, as we know from history and the movies, for all his sins in Iraq, helped his nation heal from what could have been another annus horribilis, 1997, the year young Princess Diana died tragically.

    Likewise, in 2007, my horrible year, I became active in an IRL support group (once I had to move away from due to my financial difficulties) where I became a group leader and began to get more of a handle on my own issues -- daddy issues, Daddy issues (as in the "Big Daddy" Up There), issues from my former marriage, issues from past suicide attempts, issues from near-lifelong bullying due to non-existent boundaries, work issues (slowly realizing that not getting to my stress-filled career ambitions might be a good thing). I lost weight -- a lot of weight, 45 pounds by early 2008. And most importantly, my mood had stabilized -- even if below the midpoint, given circumstances, it had stabilized. Which I ultimately realized was a promising sign for someone with bipolar disorder.

    So the famine, in its own way, prepared me for the feast that became 2008.

    Because of my lack of access transportation-wise to my real-life support group, I spent more time on those of Beliefnet. Where I began to encounter this sad (because her father had just passed away) yet charming woman, dealing with two rambunctious teen-age boys, who I only knew as "Anap." At first I thought, once I learned she was of Latin American origins, she took siestas in the afternoon (LOL), but of course I soon realized it was a version of her name IRL, Ana P.

    I told Therese in November 1997 that, despite lingering feelings for a beautiful woman in New Jersey (inside and out) I just didn't have enough in common with, I knew my true soulmate was still out there -- I just didn't think I would meet her soon.

    "Soon" turned out to be two months in my case, of course.

    And strength built upon strength. Hearing Ana's sadness about her father put my rages with my stepfather in some perspective, and I was increasingly able to control my anxiety attacks with him.

    I found the job I needed for my independence. Shortly after that, I found a beautiful apartment a half-hour away by train that took dogs, and fully rebuilt my independence.  Needless to say, I threw out the suicide/coma kit.

    Shortly after that, this woman I'd been chatting more and more romantically with all along invited me to visit her for the Fourth of July in Miami. A massive South Florida thunderstorm hit at dusk, but we still saw fireworks literally all around us in the pouring rain.

    And between us as well.

    And the rest is history.

    My moving to Miami, and so soon, deserves a bit of an explanation, of course. Ana was clearly less happy on her visit to New York over Labor Day than I was in Miami (rusty Spanish and all) in July and then in November for her birthday. Uprooting her boys from school (and particularly her outstanding soccer player oldest son, who would have missed an entire year of the potentially scholarship-attracting sport due to the different seasons) was just not the right thing to do. I could not have accommodated three more people in my apartment the way Ana could accommodate one more in hers.

    And my job was nothing to write home about. It served its purpose of getting me back into the professional world, out of my parents' house, and with a resume line (and positive reference). But I'd had a couple of clashes with my bosses and the hiring process (much as I needed the job, of course) was the most dysfunctional I'd ever encountered. Strange things happened as well (like the 100 mph trip to Albany on the New York State Thruway I blogged about -- a day that ended at 2 a.m., which would be fine if I'd been getting paid like a Wall Street broker pre-crash). My ultimate reference warned me I would have a rough go of it, and she was right.

    So what was I giving up versus what I could get? A year long-distance was long enough for us -- too long.

    Emerging from my own annus mirabilis into the annus horribilis that is our current national economy is daunting in some ways. I may well have to go back into the retail world, at least temporarily. And there are the usual stresses and strains that two people who have lived alone from romantic companionship for so long are encountering. (Especially under the noses of two prying if understandably curious boys.)

    But good things happened for the country in 2008 after trillion-dollar bailouts (to be paid for by me and Ana, and certainly Ana's kids), a stock-market crash, and huge companies vanishing overnight in Ponzi schemes. One might argue "Bushonomics" itself was a Ponzi scheme, which is why Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. But his was not a campaign of mere protest -- it represented the optimistic hopes of tens of millions of people anticipating the socially changing, post-racial America Ana and I live everyday in Miami. (On the other hand, the idea that 46% of the population consists of judgmental fundamentalists, believers in torture and/or Herbert Hoover economics, and men besotted by Sarah Palin, thinking her a gun-toting, moose- and turkey-killing, multi-reproducing political version of Angelina Jolie, is troubling.)

    Just as the bad times of 2007 became laissez le bon temps rouler for me in 2008, I have to continue to (in Stephen Covey's words) "sharpen the saw" and "prioritize the important, not the urgent" to continue to make progress in 2009. (More on this in my next post.) Because laissez le bon temps rouler, while enjoyable at the time, turned out to be as disastrous for the country as it was for Louisiana in its preparations for Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

    On that perhaps discordant note, Happy New Year all!

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    Feliz Navidad

    Wednesday, December 24, 2008, 12:04 AM [General]

    Here in the city that is still in many ways the capital of Latin America (even more than Mexico City or Buenos Aires or Ana's own Sao Paulo), and in the city that will be the warmest in the nation on Christmas (high 80, low 70), there's only one appropriate way to wish everyone on Beliefnet a wonderful day tomorrow:

    FELIZ NAVIDAD by Jose Feliciano

    Feliz Navidad
    Feliz Navidad
    Feliz Navidad
    Prospero Ano y Felicidad.

    Feliz Navidad
    Feliz Navidad
    Feliz Navidad
    Prospero Ano y Felicidad.

    I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas
    I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas
    I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas
    From the bottom of my heart.

    UPDATE:  This blog entry is officially closed to further comments.  Lo siento.

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    Schumie/Yoshi Update

    Monday, December 22, 2008, 4:00 PM [General]

    Stray cat strut, I'm a ladies' cat,
    A feline Casanova, hey man, thats where its at
    Get a shoe thrown at me from a mean old man
    Get my dinner from a garbage can -- The Stray Cats

    For some reason (maybe it's an understated confidence in us in a couple, which would be good, I guess), Beliefnet readers seem more interested in my dog Schumie and Ana's cat Yoshi getting along than in Ana and me ourselves.

    Well, for all the cat lovers out there, I can happily (for them) report the score is Yoshi 1, Schumie 0. And furthermore, if Schumie keeps playing the game with as much hapless enthusiasm as she has shown so far, it will soon be 15-0 Yoshi -- as in, on Schumie's end, the pitiful 0-15 Detroit Lions football team.
    First of all, I should explain that Yoshi and Schumie do not have to share the house full-time (thank G-d). Yoshi is basically an outdoor cat, spending 75-80% of his time outdoors -- and right now, since Schumie is here and there is a drought, 95%.

    But when Yoshi is inside, Schumie wants to play with him. Desperately. My joke is that Schumie thinks cats are just "funny-looking dogs."

    Now, when she would be with my mom's cats, they would just run under a bed and not even bother engaging her. But Yoshi, with his stray/alley cat temperament, fights back.

    Uh-oh.

    It will tell you something that my mom's nickname for Schumie is "Spike," the bulldog from Tom and Jerry. But who she really meant was TYKE, Spike's hyperactive puppy.

    The same dynamic was happening over and over again -- Schumie would approach, avoid, approach, avoid Yoshi. If she finally approached too close, Yoshi would swipe at her. Schumie would retreat a minute, but then still want to play -- though at this point, Mommy and Daddy have usually intervened.

    Last night, however, Yoshi was so docile as to be somnambulent and seemed genuinely uninterested in attacking Schumie. So we let Schumie go to see if they could find their limits.

    First Schumie climbed between two pillows to try to say hi to Yoshi on the couch. He hissed, so she retreated a little bit.

    But then, she climbed (catlike, ironically) up to the top of the sofa, around Yoshi, and back down right in his face.

    SLASH!!!!!!!

    He drew blood. Fortunately, doxies are built with extra strong ears, since they are bred for hunting badgers underground. Silly Schumie didn't even realize she'd been hurt and wanted to go back, as if to say, "I KNOW that was just a 'shake paws' that missed ..."
    But as we were tending to Schumie's wound, it did give me pause (paws?) what would have happened if Yoshi had hit Schu's eye rather than ear.

    Today, and for the foreseeable future, we're keeping them apart. But the next time there is a gullywasher, as there inevitably is in Miami, we have to let Yoshi in.

    Even then, we can keep Yoshi downstairs (he doesn't go upstairs) and Schumie upstairs (she can't climb down stairs). But we have to figure out a way to keep them co-existing -- and preferably without permanent injury or even a serious vet visit to Schumie.

    Suggestions are appreciated. Even from cat lovers (which I most definitely am NOT today, despite admitting little Schumie is an agent provocateur herself) ...
     
    UPDATE:  Comments are officially closed on this blog post ...
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    A Hoy, Matey!

    Monday, December 22, 2008, 10:24 AM [General]

    No, this is not a reference to the fishermen trawling for marlin off the South Florida coast. Or, to Cubans here in Miami, a bad translation from, "To today, strong herbal tea!"

    No, I have been nominated for an "A Hoy" award as an outstanding Internet blogger. The award is named after Chris Hoy, the great triple-Beijing gold medal winning cyclist from Scotland, in honor of his skill and determination. (If you've never heard of him in the U.S., blame that darn Michael Phelps.) Hoy beat out my own sports hero, Lewis Hamilton of Formula 1 greatness, as BBC British Sportsperson of the Year this year, which really says something.

    Anyway, A Hoy was organized by a wonderful team of bloggers including Matthew Holford of "It's Quite An Experience," Stephany of "Soulful Sepulcher," Bob "Fiddy" Fiddaman, Ana from Brazil (no relation to my Ana from Brazil -- this one is from Rio, not Sao Paulo) and (here's where the six degrees of separation sort themselves out) Susan of the "Going Through Hell" blog, also known as hollythecat here on Beliefnet.

    I'm quite honored -- especially when the new rhythms of being in my new home with "my" Ana from Brazil (not to mention her two teen-age sons!) mean I may have to slow down the Doxieman Blog a bit after the holidays. But the recognition of my intelligence, hard work, writing ability and frequent willingness to be scarily open personally (scarily even to myself at times) is so very much appreciated.

    The award comes with some "pay it forward" terms and conditions (in part because it is named after a living personality) which are listed below. Thanks so much to everyone associated with A Hoy and particularly Susan for pushing me with the nominating committee!

    A Hoy's Web page: http://threegoldsinonetournament.blogspot.com

    Susan's/hollythecat's Web page/blog: http://ifyouregoingthoughhellkeepgoing.blogspot.com

    Rules for Making an "A Hoy" Award

    1. Pick five blogs that you consider deserve this award based upon any criteria - for example, the quality of the commentary, wit, humour, artwork, overall design, value to you of the information being provided, and so on.

    2. The awarding blogger should choose at least two blogs not on his or her own blogroll, the purpose being to encourage variety of reading matter, and to have the person making the award think about what they like to see and read.

    3. Your five choices must be published in a dedicated post on your own blog. This post must contain the name of the author (which may be their logon name), and also a link to his or her blog to be visited by everyone. This post should contain brief details of what attracted you to the blog. Details may also be posted in the comments section of "What is a Hoy?"

    4. In the same dedicated post, each winner has to show the award and acknowledge the blog that has given him or her the award.

    5. Both those awarding and receiving A Hoy must show the link to A Hoy blog, so that everyone will know the origin of this award.

    6. When publishing details of the blogs to which you have made your awards, these Rules must be published for recipients to follow.
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    Dale Carnegie's Secret

    Saturday, December 20, 2008, 3:14 PM [General]

    I think most regular Doxieman Blog readers would know that I would never have written my last entry a year ago.  In fact, some of you still probably think I've been kidnapped by aliens -- or at least, perhaps, Ana (who glowingly approved of it) hacked into my account and wrote the last entry.

    Yet there is a continuing theme that makes my increasing return to a more positive way of thinking (which is at least stabilizing, if not necessarily improving in a gigantic way, my mental health), well, logical.

    For I am a graduate of Dale Carnegie Training -- the legacy of the relentlessly sunny teacher and author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

    I'm still not entirely sure I embrace what Carnegie fervently believed -- that OUR OWN behavior can change others' actions.  But I certainly believe, as he did (and always have even at my worst moments, even if I was bereft of the ability to practice what I preached) that changing our own THOUGHTS can affect our own behavior.  This is more difficult when you have depression, of course -- but not impossible.

    Indeed, Dale Carnegie Training, which I took in the winter and spring of 2003, was where I "came out" of the depression closet.  The class is 12 weeks, one three-hour night each week, where you increasingly build into activities designed to boost self-confidence.  By the second-to-last class, you are supposed to use a 5-minute extemporaneous speech to reveal something no one knows about you that tells something major about your character.

    I knew what I had to do.  And at the end of the speech (and that was only going over the first half of my time with this diagnosis, mind you), the applause and the hugs were incredibly genuine.  Some of them, of course, had just revealed dark secrets as well; but still, it was the first time I had ever gotten positive feedback from people that my survival was something positive.  I am still so grateful to Diana, Merarie, Maryellen, Elaina, Michelle, Joe for their support -- and for teaching me that not everyone embraces stigma.

    Naturally, after I got back to the office with my certificate, within a few weeks my boss had been fired for, well, doing things like establishing a continuing education budget to send employees to Dale Carnegie; and shortly after that, I was too for being too associated with the tainted ex-director.  And I've never had as prestigious, or (inflation-wise) as well-paying a job since.  So much for positivism.

    But not really.  Listen to the words of the man himself, who rumor has it knew a thing or two about depression despite his public image of Panglossian optimism:

    (NOTE:  #1, #2 and #5 are the types of rules that, as Therese Borchard would say, are best considered when one is in a better place with one's depression.  Otherwise, even though they are good rules, in that moment they may further contribute to one's inferiority complex.  #3 and #4, though, are universal.)

    Would you like to have more courage?  Here are five short rules, which, if you will follow them, I guarantee will increase your store of fortitude:

    1.  Act as if you were courageous.  This makes you a bit braver as if one side of yourself had been challenged and wished to show it was not wholly afraid.

    2.  Pause to reflect that others have had to face great discouragements and great obstacles and have overcome them.  And what others have done, you can surely do.  (NOTE:  I much enjoy reading the autobiographies of those with depression like Kay Redfield Jamison, Jane Pauley, William Styron, etc.) 

    3.  Remember that your life forces move in a sort of rhythm and that if you feel depressed and without the power to face life you may be at the bottom of the trough; if you keep your courage (NOTE: which may just mean staying alive), you will probably swing out of it by the very forces which at the moment are sucking you down.

    4.  Remember that you feel more defeated and downcast at night than during the daylight hours.  Courage comes with the sun.  (NOTE:  Applies especially if you have seasonal affective disorder, either full-blown or mild as part of another diagnosis.)

    5.  Courage is the measure of a big soul.  Try to measure up.  (NOTE:  This may sound harsh, but I take it to mean that being able to live with depression day-to-day is itself courageous and the mark of a big soul  ...)

    (... which brings me to another of Dale Carnegie's aphorisms ...)

    We can all endure disaster and tragedy, and triumph over them -- if we have to.  We may not think we can, but we have surprisingly strong inner resources that will see us through if we will only make use of them.  We are stronger than we think.

    This is one of my absolute favorite sayings in life, and it was a revelation recently to realize I had been accidentally plagiarizing it from DCT.  (I'm sure Dale Carnegie's soul wouldn't mind.)  And it's one that I believe to my marrow.

    So it's not such a crazy (pardon the pun) thing to think I would fall in love with a woman who is a devotee of Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret" (as are her sisters) and Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth."  Dale Carnegie (and Norman Vincent Peale) are often lumped in with Byrne and Tolle and Werner Erhard's est.  Is there really a difference?

    Yes, there is.

    It comes from a term called "responsibility assumption," which all these philosophies fall into.  Now, you may say, of course we should assume responsibility for our own lives -- how could anyone not believe that?

    True, but these are philosophies which hold that our thoughts are either potentially -- or in the case of Byrne, at least, absolutely -- responsible for any outcome in our lives. 

    So what does this mean when one has a disease such as depression, which alters our minds involuntarily to have negative thoughts?

    First of all, there we can still take the good from the bad when "responsibility assumption" is what is called "partial and substantial."  John Denver was a devoted follower of Werner Erhard and est (and indeed wrote est's theme song, "Looking For Space," which I've blogged about here).  He was obviously an imperfect follower as well; in many ways that was good, avoiding the most negative parts of Erhard's teaching (i.e., his not letting students go to the bathroom for endless hours to teach self-discipline).  But it also meant Denver divorced the woman who was by all accounts the love of his life (Annie from "Annie's Song") and later flew an airplane that he should have known, and others did know was dangerous, to his death. 

    But he also gave the world remarkable joy, and the themes of rebirth and renewal in his music ("He was born in the summer of his 27th year/Coming home to a place he'd never been before") are comforting to those of us with depression who say, "I'll never be forgiven this time, I can't rebuild again." 

    And indeed, most cognitive therapy is about us assuming "partial and substantial" responsibility despite -- nay, because of -- our illnesses.

    But when "responsibility assumption" is TOTAL, as with Byrne and to a certain extent Tolle -- to say that every thought we have produces a bodily outcome -- we must condemn it as monstrous against people with depression.  (It will not surprise anyone here to learn that my ex-wife "E." was a fan of Werner Erhard and his philosophies.)

    Byrne would have you think it's simply about imagining you are rich and, therefore, stimulating the tools in yourself to make yourself rich (or, perhaps more felicitously, catching the flap of the butterfly's wings that lets you win the lottery).  I think this is a complete scam; but I would not campaign against "The Secret" as I do if it was simply a scam.  Otherwise, I'd have to blog every time a Nigerian prince sent me an e-mail ...

    And obviously, by its nature, "The Secret" says that people with depression must not want to be happy because they can just cure themselves by thinking -- an oxymoron if ever there was one, as anyone with the disease could tell Byrne.

    However, "The Secret" has an even worse dark side that Oprah doesn't want you to know.  It's the 1963 "Twilight Zone" episode It's a Good Life (or if you prefer, the similar plot of the 1956 movie "Forbidden Planet") with Cloris Leachman, where a boy's jealous telepathic rages result in the annihilation of the planet and everyone in it.

    And it's the people who very seriously say, "The Jews must have wanted to die in the Holocaust, because if they had changed their thoughts they could have prevented it."  (Similar things are said in The Forum, the evolution of Erhard's est classes.)

    Dale Carnegie, the man who believed that people can react positively to positive behavior, was not naive (or cruel) enough to think that.  But that is the logical extension of "The Secret"; there's no getting around it.

    I think Ana now understands my objections to "The Secret," and is trying to find the more Dale Carnegie-like elements of it while realizing it has potentially serious negative implications as well.  I hope her sisters are able to do the same. 

    But I need to be more understanding of them as well.  Who knows, maybe in some way it has contributed to their warm welcome towards me.

    And we've all been fooled by leaders and teachers before.  Heck, once upon a time I believed George W. Bush when he said he would be a "uniter, not a divider" after September 11 ... 

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    Turn! Turn! Turn! (On, Tune In, Drop Out)

    Thursday, December 18, 2008, 9:17 AM [General]

    In our ever-changing lives, particularly when you have depression as I do, one of the questions it seems we always ask ourselves is the one David Byrne and Talking Heads asked in "Once in a Lifetime" -- "Well, how did I get here?"

    But in the cosmic sense, you're ALWAYS who you're supposed to be. No matter your religious beliefs. Which doesn't mean you shouldn't go with it when the spur for self-improvement hits you, of course, because then you're STILL always the person you're supposed to be.

    I know that sounds a little Zen (maybe because my girlfriend is Buddhist, LOL), but it's really not that complicated.

    We are all creatures of G-d/the Divine. We are all in the middle of a journey. The point is the journey, not particular outcomes in terms of material/earthly things. Or if you prefer, in terms of slogans, "random acts of kindness," not "whoever dies with the most toys wins."'

    G-d never promised us, in the Judeo-Christian tradition at least, that the journey would always be smooth.

    Indeed, one of the most famous Psalms about G-d's blessings, Psalm 23, contains the line, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." That Psalm promises G-d's healing, but not IMMEDIATELY, or maybe even in this lifetime. Only that it will happen somehow, at some point, as a result of our long walk along the way.

    Because while we with depression walk in that valley, we also know -- if we are honest, and even if we are not lucky enough to have the best medical care -- we also have good days.

    But the interplay is constant. Just as the rigorously self-honest realize that we can emerge from depression's worst, at least at times, the fact remains that the disease of depression is itself a forge, a crucible that tests us in fire -- particularly at its onset.

    Because my bipolar disorder struck somewhat later in life than it has for others (28; I turn 40 in February), because I was always a ridiculous people-pleasing perfectionist anyway -- and because my bipolar had some small but important negative cognitive effects on my work -- my response was ultimately that of Timothy Leary towards LSD:

     

    TURN ON (to the full range of legal pharmaceuticals -- a couple of dozen, in fact, in my case -- before finding the right regimen);

    TUNE IN (to your own biorhythms, to find more basic, non-medication ways of reducing stress); and

    DROP OUT (of all the outrageous, impossible expectations I had of myself, and I therefore had created in those around me).

    Granted, it's a little unnerving (so to speak) to admit, as someone who abhors Baby Boomers (in general, not individuals; my mom is a Baby Boomer) and who, even today, despite my dependence on psychiatric drugs, abhors taking mind-altering drugs solely for the sake of altering one's mind -- not even marijuana -- that I have so much in common with a hero of '60s hippies. (And a hero of evil stepdad too.)

    Yet wisdom comes from surprising places. So there you go.

    The financial consequences of this outlook have occasionally been frightening; but then, David Byrne could have told us that ("Into the blue again, after the money's gone"). But being able to sleep at night is more important for someone with bipolar disorder than it is even for most people. And I usually can, quite well. With the assistance of a CPAP machine, of course, but that's a different story ...

    There's another touchstone of '60s culture, though, that (thanks to the songwriting skills of the immortal Pete Seeger) taps back to time-honored wisdom. Perhaps the reason that Ecclesiastes (even more than Job, to my mind) is the most comforting book of Scripture to someone with bipolar disorder is that it reminds us that EVERYONE, whether they have bipolar disorder or not, goes through highs and lows, moments of clarity and moments of doubt. Ours are just more EXTREME.

    We're not that different from everyone else -- and everyone else is not that much different from us. (Ironically, as Pete Earley's seminal book "Crazy" has noted, this is probably the very reason there is so much stigma about mental illness.)

    But we share the common ups and downs of life when we hear the jangle of that opening 12-string guitar and the Byrds start singing:

    To everything

    Turn! Turn! Turn!

    There is a season

    Turn! Turn! Turn!

    And a time to every purpose under heaven

    The song, of course, quotes the most famous post-Torah lines of the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). And if it teaches a little humility ... well, a book of wisdom of any religion that basically begins with the line "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!" should have a way of refocusing your priorities.

    But if not, a chronic disease like bipolar disorder can certainly do it for you -- whether you want it to or not.

    So you might as well play an active role in your own destiny. Because even in the sickest days of your journey, "you" are always there, no matter what.

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    Basking

    Tuesday, December 16, 2008, 3:10 PM [General]

    So after shipping all my clothes and miscellaneous belongings by parcel post; spending many sleepless, anxious nights my last few days before leaving (not because of being scared, but because my CPAP machine had broken -- it's now fixed); paying a not-as-tearful-as-I-thought-it-would-be goodbye to my mom (my stepdad, of course, could care less); giving Schumie a sedative before boarding the plane; and then spending quite an easy flight -- with just a little turbulence out of LaGuardia -- to Miami, I arrived in South Florida about 9 p.m. last night.

    My new home.  No longer just a fun tourist place that my girlfriend happens to live in.  The real deal.

    I'm still unpacking, of course, and need to decide about a couple of specific things with Ana.  Ana's oldest is avoiding me; her youngest is sort of taking a "yeah, whatever" attitude.

    They're not even impressed by Schumie's cuteness.  I mean, c'mon, guys!  (I know the oldest boy's girlfriend will love Schumie, though -- and she's already predisposed to think I'm good for boyfriend's mom, which will help.) 

    Poor Schumie is lost.  After a rough day yesterday (though the sedative did its job -- my seatmate didn't even know at the end of the flight there had been a dog underneath the seat the whole time!), I think she thought she would get her creature comforts back.  And she did, in the sense that her alligator dog bed and favorite blankies had already arrived.  But it's not the same, of course.  Part of it is realizing that she's not the, well, "big dog" anymore, size be darned.  (Though I am very confident I will win Ana over to the dog side faster than she wins me to the cat side.  Sorry, cat lovers ...) 

    The weather -- high 70s/low 80s, a little humid, sunny.  I understand the weather is hideous in the Northeast -- that turbulence out of New York -- which means it may be more "Christmasy" there, but I'll take the palm trees gladly.

    Really just saying hi quickly before going back to unpacking.  Basking in the glow -- of Miami, of "meu amor." 

    And starting the first day of the rest of my life. 

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