With my hand on the wheel and my brain in neutral . . .

The other night, summertime, just after dark, in a light rain, I lazily rowed my dinghy out of the marina and toward my sailboat moored out about 50 yards.   The water dripping from my oar blades blended with the sleepy raindrops on the water, and as I stealthily passed the marina owner’s 102-foot motor yacht, from inside I could hear the old man’s voice and the chit-chat of his guests, including the recognizable hearty laughter of the barrel-chested bartender, a friend of mine. Gliding past the tall, steep, white hull of the yacht, I was reminded of the opening scene of the famous classic The Oddyoullsee, the epic voyage of Miklysses.

In case you don’t immediately recall the opening scene from reading the book in its entirety in high school, I’ll summarize it here for you. I’m sure my rendition will not be nearly as poetic as the original, but here goes:

The great voyage began with Miklysses rowing a tiny boat away from a small seafaring village and in to the sun setting on the sea. On shore, all the women waved farewell, wept, and wailed; all the men – the husbands, the boyfriends, the lonely but hopeful single men – gestured disgustingly, threw curses and rocks and insults, and then shouted with joy, clapped each other soundly around the shoulders, drank heroically, and celebrated better days to come. None of this fazed Miklysses: over the years, he had become quite accustomed to this sort of farewell. At each of his departures, the satisfied women and moon-eyed girls and the frustrated men, all behaved this same way, here, there, this year, last year . . . ad nauseum – ya, I think that’s the phrase.

Anyways, Miklysses rowed away into the falling night, less concerned with the inconsolable women and the relieved men on shore than the immediate dangers of the darkening water. Near the village, still relatively close to shore, there were the Water Snakes of Death, monstrous things that could tip a boat and swallow a man whole. Only their very young, still the size of finger-thick ropes just a foot or two long, would be seen during the day; the big ones hunted exclusively at night. Some brave but foolish men would use wine to lure them in to their vision, but that usually did not end well: it was best to keep your distance (from the Water Snakes of Death, not the wine.) A little farther out, there were the dreaded, massive, menacing Ducks of Death (in other surviving texts from ancient times, these are commonly referred to as Duhhhhhcks ovvvvvvv Deaeaeath.) He couldn’t see them, but he could hear, he could feel in his vibrating bones, the low grumbling roar of their of thunderous QUAAAACK.   By sound alone he judged their changing positions, adjusting his course this way and that, undetected and undeterred, snaking and sneaking his way through the frightful flock. Then, a bit further, were the Straits of Liquidity.

The Straits of Liquidity were not dangerous waters per se, but on the south side, cutting cleanly into the water, there was a sheer white cliff that towered high overhead, and there, high above the water, was the haunt of a giant.   The problem was that if he saw you passing the cliffs, he would invite you to visit. He would reach down from above to lift you up, and then he would give you copious amounts of exquisite honeymeade to slake your thirst. All of this was not particularly perilous in itself.   The giant – tall, strong, white-haired, and clear-eyed – was not very dangerous, that is, unless someone attempted to trick him or take advantage of him. Otherwise he was considered by all to be rather jovial and generous. The real problem was that he tended to take in a variety of orphaned goblins that hung about underfoot, eating his food and drinking his prime wine, mead, and ale. Some of those smiling goblins would refill your bull’s horn or mug until you were unaware that they were magically sucking the life force from your soul, literally taking time from the span of your life, one heartbeat at a time, to add to theirs. Horrid, horrid little beasts!

In the preceding years many times Miklysses had visited the dear old giant, and he considered him a friend. In what little ways he could, he repaid, or at least attempted to repay, the old giant’s benevolence. This night, though, he did not stop, could not stop to visit. He worked his rowboat through the Straits of Liquidity and out onto Decker Flats. Not stopping, though, on this particular night, might have been a mistake.

The Straits had been calm, nary even a wavelet, only ripples echoing from the now far-away mighty Ducks of Death. The Flats, though, out in the open, with tremendous fetch to form waves, waves made steep and tall by the shallow bottom, were, this night, much more than just a bit treacherous. Miklysses’s ocean-going boat Kala Nag was heavily anchored safe on the edge of the flats. The problem? It was far, far away on the other side of the flats!

Other, more fearful sailors would have waited for less threatening conditions, but Miklysses didn’t hesitate to point the bow of his tiny rowboat toward Kala Nag, his voyaging vessel, his home. Up one side of a random wave and down the other, the tiny boat heaving and yawing every which way the waves and wind could imagine, but with his oars cycling rhythmically despite the chaos, Miklysses held his course arrow straight. He had to aim upwind to allow for leeway, of course, but when he reached the stern of his stout voyaging vessel, he had to make only a single correcting stroke. And he accomplished this in the near blackness of the night!

Sensing the surge of a wave under his rowboat, he leaped into the near blackness, timing his jump as the rowboat rose while his already famous sailboat Kala Nug plummeted down into the wave’s trough nearby. In midair he flicked his wrist and snapped the tender’s painter into a solid cleat hitch on Kala Nag’s stern, securing the rowboat before he landed on deck. With a twist and a turn he vaulted himself – he did NOT trip and fall – through the split backstay, over the coaming, around the tiller, and into the cockpit. The boat was bouncing like a ball being batted around by anthropomorphic waves, but, I’m telling you, he did NOT trip and fall. He did not. He braced himself in a three-point ready stance, the position to be made famous many centuries later by Spiderman and other incredibly athletic superheroes. He did NOT trip and fall into the cockpit like a loose bag of broken sticks. He did NOT.

Once aboard the admirable sailing vessel Kala Nag, he looked about, checking her lines and state of readiness, surveying his realm. He did not weigh anchor and slip away, though: no, because he was a sailor’s sailor, because he was Miklysses, salty, seasoned, and prudent, he went below, took a nip of whiskey to ward off any evil spirits lurking nearby, then promptly fell asleep, wisely waiting until “first light” to begin his voyage and continue his adventure.

So, there you have it, a humble re-telling of the opening of The Oddyoullsee, a mere glimpse into the life of Miklysses. Not until two millennia had passed, not until the likes of Sir Walter Mitty and Commander McBragg, would the world see the likes of such a man.

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Every now and then I hear somebody say, “I don’t believe in Prozac” (or other anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication.) It has become increasingly harder for me not to reply. That statement can somehow instantly suck my Zen serenity right out of me and deflate my bubble of hope for the other person.

My first question is, “What do you mean you don’t believe in it? You don’t believe that it exists, like Santa Claus?” Yes, it’s just a little bit of play, an attempt at a lighthearted opening to a non-confrontational or non-defensive discussion. Then I’ll hear some version and combination of the following statements:

“I really don’t like putting chemicals into my body.”

They’ll say something about being very leery of taking drugs – even medicinal, even mild medicine such as aspirin – to alter their brain function, but they’ll tell me this over a cup of coffee, a can of soda, a bottle of beer, or a glass of wine . . . all the while munching on processed foods packed with artificial sweeteners and chemical preservatives. (Yes, I know it is human, but nonetheless it is inconsistent logic.)

Many, many people seem to have this belief that their personality is pure and separate from the meat of their bodies, that their cosmic soul is not hampered by their human genetics and filtered through their day-by-day biochemical balance. It is commonly understood that everything about our bodies – the shape of our faces, the color of our eyes and hair and skin, our general physical builds, our level of innate athleticism, and even our various levels of intelligence – are strongly influenced by both genetics and diet (biochemical balance), so why is it such a hurdle to extend this understanding to the product of our primary organ, the brain?

We know that our thoughts (and their resultant feelings) reside in the brain; we knew that long before science could explain exactly how a “hard knock on the noggin” could severely change a person’s mental functioning; we knew that long before science could explain why women’s moods tend to change with their hormonal cycle; we knew that long before science could explain why normally sensible men became someone else when under the influence of testosterone (in love or war). Hell, we know it when we excuse a friend’s behavior when we say, “Don’t worry about; he’s just had too much to drink.” So why is it that we can believe, that we can empirically and scientifically know, that our thinking is done by our body’s brain – a biological organ subject to biological influences and problems – but somehow completely separate this, disassociate this, from our ephemeral and “pure” personality? (Yes, I know it is human, but nonetheless it is inconsistent logic.)

“I prefer to do without it, to live the way God made me.”

They’ll take their insulin or blood pressure medication, they’ll wear their eyeglasses or contacts, they’ll go to the dentist or orthodontist, they’ll even get cosmetic surgery – but oh, no, they won’t mess with the way God created them, the way they move through life . . . (And again, inconsistent logic.)

“I don’t need it; I’m not that bad off.”

Oh, is that so?   Maybe they should ask the people around them and then not dismiss or discredit their answers.

“I tried it and didn’t like it, didn’t like the way it made me feel.”

Okay, that’s perfectly valid. The big question, though, is whether they tried the right medicine and right dosage for them, and if they took it long enough for their bodies to adjust to it.

This statement is almost the same as the next:

“I’ve had bad experiences with it.”

Slow down; there are a couple of points here:

  1. Yes, absolutely, as we hear in the warning sections of so many pharmaceutical commercials on TV, yes, it is entirely possible that the prescribed drug exacerbated the problem and created fairly-appraised “bad experiences.”
  2. So, again, did they have the right medicine and the right dosage?
  3. Did they try more than one or two medications? If your adult child went out and dated just one, two, three, or four different people then came home and said he or she was not ever going to date again because he or she “had bad experiences with it,” what would you say? Or the same with two or three jobs? Keep looking!
  4. What were the current circumstances of their lives?   If they had several stressors active at the time, can they be sure it was the medicine and not the circumstantial stress that was giving them headaches, clouding their minds, making them sleepy, and so on? As in all other areas of life, most people simply do NOT carefully separate all possible variables to identify the true cause.
  5. THE TRICKIEST REASON to understand and accept just might be that the medication did indeed work, that it made them healthier and strong enough to begin to face whatever problems and dysfunctions and demons were stressing them. Disrupting the status quo and finding themselves in unknown territory can be quite unnerving. (I know a man whose wife stayed by his side for 20 years while he was a (self-proclaimed) drunk, but soon after he finally sobered up, she divorced him.)

“Everyone I know who has used it is still unhappy and kind of wacky.”

Yes, they are.   (Well, actually, maybe not: it is doubtful that anyone is aware of every person around them who uses anti-anxiety or anti-depressant meds at a maintenance level.) But, how unhappy and more wacky might they be if they didn’t have their meds? No one can say for sure, but – if they’ve been accurately diagnosed and properly prescribed – they’re probably better off. Ask the properly medicated what they think of their medication use. The meds are not a magic pill; they don’t make you instantly happy and mentally healthy. For that, you have to change the way you live your life and maybe even change the circumstances of your life. Not only does that take time but also it is an endless struggle, for all of us. The meds are intended just to enable you to get out of bed and make it through a day with at least half a chance of being functional enough to make progress on your own.

“It’s a crutch. I’ll be stronger if I learn to do without it.”

Uh-huh, yes, it is.   If their ankle were sprained, would they use a physical crutch? Same with their coats in cold weather, shoes on their feet, etc., no?

Readers, I have been taking anti-depressants for about 20 years now, and there is a clear demarcation between the first “half”, the “before” part of my life and the second, “after” part of my life. The medicinal drugs don’t make me a superman, that’s for sure, but I shudder to think of living without them. You know those futuristic apocalyptic movies where either in the city or in the desert even basic living is brutally hard? Without my meds, that would sort of be the world I would be living in today, here, now (but with less bizarre clothing.) They’d call me (No-)Med Max . . . So, yes, hell yes, I “believe” in anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds.

I have one question for steadily depressed or anxious people who tell me they don’t believe in meds.   So far, I haven’t asked it of anyone, but each time the topic is broached, I can feel that question crawling up my throat. One of these days it will escape my lips, so I hope I can lead up to it gently, and find softer words than I have up till now. Here it is:

Instead of you taking medication, more convenient than you taking medication, are you forcing your family and all the people around you to suffer your behavior and make adjustments in their lives to deal with all the overt and subtle repercussions of your maybe simple biochemical imbalance? Especially with your family, is it fair, healthy, and loving of you to dump long term echoes of dysfunction permanently into their hearts and lives simply because you are afraid of finding medicine that will help you?

Ya, I know: ouch.

Maybe before I get so pointed I’ll say just – when steadily depressed or anxious people tell me they don’t believe in meds – that I have had to adopt a policy for investing my energy where I believe it will do good and not investing it where I’m banging my head against a wall while there’s a doorway open to me. Aww, hell, maybe I’ll tell them I “don’t believe” in helping to solve the depression or anxiety problems of people who “don’t believe” in proper medication . . .

The Indie Book Boosters Club has a number of pretty good writers, but my favorite among them so far is Helen Spring.   I don’t believe she’ll take exception if I say that although her writing is not absolutely perfect or awe-inspiringly beautiful, it is certainly impressive!   When you read her books, you will wonder why she isn’t already more famous. You will think of other, more widely-known authors you’ve picked up and put down, and you will wonder why aren’t her books already overflowing out of airport kiosks?

From my review of her Strands of Gold:

I found myself reading it way past my bedtime and then going right back to it with my morning coffee.   Pretty quickly I realized that the author is a true storyteller: she pulls you in and makes you want to discover what happens next. It is apparent that she spent a lot of time imagining the characters and details of the story, impressive in its thoroughness, exactly enough to make it all feel quite real.

Repeatedly I thought of how, as a young reader many years ago, I would be absorbed into a novel and transported to a new world. On the surface this story is about a proper English woman in Singapore and Australia circa 1900, but the undercurrent is about timeless, universal ideas of integrity, loyalty, perspectives of truth, and more.   There’s a love story in here, too, and it’s more than just a popcorn romance tale: I’m recommending this book to my niece for the examples of strong-hearted women and what really matters in love.

It is apparent that the author is comfortable with her craft and her self-image as a novelist: the writing is not at all self-conscious or clumsy. Her use of dialogue is better than average, her plot and sub-plots are well-executed, and her characters are portrayed with all the complexities of real people. To top it off, because her heroes are such likeable people, she – the author who created them – is quite likeable, too.

Strands of Gold by Helen Spring

From my review of her The Chainmakers:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Helen Spring is a true storyteller!

99 percent of this book flows through your eyes and into your mind as easily and comfortably as the thoughts of a daydream. The author writes with enough skill that 99 percent of the time you read and believe the fiction as fact, like you’re the proverbial fly on the wall absorbing it all.

Her characters are distinct, complex, and layered with maturity as the story progresses. She has villains with redeeming graces and heroes with faults, and she portrays both in wholly believable fashion. She made me care about what happened to the characters not simply out of curiosity but because I LIKED them as if they were real people, my friends or acquaintances in real life. That’s a neat trick, and it is books like this one that fuel a reader’s desire to search out another good book. This is why I’ve been telling friends who like to read to give this author a try whether or not her books are in their favorite genre.

The Chainmakers by Helen Spring

So why am I posting this on my blog? Because that’s what we in the Indie Book Boosters Club do: we help other indie authors we respect and admire. Why?   Because as Sophocles said, “If we always helped one another, no one would need luck.”

Note: If you like her books, and especially if you agree that she deserves big success as an author, please go to Amazon (or Amazon.co.uk, or whichever branch you use) to post a review for her. Thank you!

PS – If you like a good read, or if you have friends who like a good read, please tell them about Helen Spring.  If you’re a fellow blogger here on WordPress, please repost this!  If you like the indie spirit, or if you’re an indie writer yourself, please repost this!  Woo-hoo!

Yondu Udonta, Guardians of the Galaxy

Yondu Udonta, Guardians of the Galaxy

A surprising percentage of people all over the world don’t know this, but the thing about vampires, ghosts, visiting aliens, and all kinds of other so-called imaginary beings, is that if you look at them directly, you cannot see them. It has something to do with the human eye and how the brain interprets the biochemical visual signals: it’s partly why sailors know to look just a tad to the left and right of a target far off on the water to prevent it from “disappearing.”

Some of the time – actually most of the time – if you want to show somebody something that will scare him, it works well if you use the sailor’s trick and show him something a little to the left or right of the reality you want him to see. People so easily accept something they almost see out of the corner of their eye (“What was that?”), much more so than something they don’t want to see, even when it is right there in front of them (“Um, ya, uhh, ya, okay, I love you, now c’mon over here . . .”)

Here’s a great example from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, y’know, the movie with the man from Earth boppin’ around the galaxy with a talking raccoon warrior, a walking, one-sentence-talking tree, a green-skinned woman assassin, and . . . well, go watch the movie! Here’s the dialogue from the scene that is a great example of the usefulness of stories of spacemen, vampires, ghosts, dragons, wizards, and the like:

Yondu Udonta: When I picked you up as a kid, these boys wanted to eat you. They ain’t never tasted Terran before. I saved your life!

Peter Quill: Oh, will you shut up about that? God! Twenty years, you’ve been throwing that in my face, like it’s some great thing, not eating me! Normal people don’t even think about eating someone else! Much less that person having to be grateful for it!

It wouldn’t have been very interesting at all, and it probably would have made many in the audience lose interest in the bigger story, if instead the “step-father” figure had said, instead of “I didn’t let them eat you,”, just “I put a roof over your head and fed you!” The not-letting-them-eat-you un-reality deftly carries the larger reality of the following line, “Normal people don’t even think about . . . (fill in the blank with your own family / relationship issue.)

Sometimes to see, or show, the forest through the trees . . . well, sometimes you gotta go left to get right.

Want a much more powerful example? Well, remember the gods of Greek and Roman mythology? Or all the parables of the Christian Bible? (I’m not attacking Christianity here; I’m just saying that as a story it certainly has many elements that can be considered fantastic, magical, metaphysical, and the like.) Millions, no, billions of people have read the Bible (religion in story format), but how many of them have read or can even name just one treatise on religious dogma (in academic, informational, or theological format?) No doubt about it, stories rule.

Sometimes the more fantastic, the more unbelievable a story is on the surface, the more human truth it holds, and the more powerful it is. So, if you don’t already have respect for ghosts, vampires, dragons, wizards, demons, aliens, and the like, just remember, sometimes you gotta go east to get West.

A Great Opening Line

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

This was written by John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars (36,000 reviews on Amazon, and made in to a movie, too. Ya, it’s pretty good.) This is not the book’s opening line, but it could have been. It would function well for any of several genres: romance, coming of age, even vampires or a murder mystery! Regardless of your favorite genre, from this line alone, don’t you want to read more of the author’s writing?

I came across this line, this quote, somewhere on the internet – Pinterest, Instagram,   Facebook, wherever – and I made a note of it because it did its job: it pulled me in gently but firmly. It is credible, relatable, has a touch of poetic vision, and implicitly carries the promise of a story that matters, a story that is important, maybe even pivotal, even if only to the fictional characters and the author. All of this, contained in just 15 words . . . oh ya, this book has got to be worth reading!

An opening that is at least good is essential; a good opening line makes what follows all the more inviting; a great opening line is irresistible.

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