The Comeback Kid

giphyAwhile back, I wrote about my struggles with clinical depression. How it steals parts of your life away. Well, things are looking a bit brighter these days and I wanted to share that part of the struggle, too.

Life is pretty good these days. My medications seem to have me balanced out. I’m no longer missing work. I’ve cut back on the therapy sessions because, when I get there, I just dodn’t have much to talk about. Both my therapist and I agreed that this is a Good Thing™. But most of all, I don’t feel quite so miserable all the time. So, all in all, I feel like I’ve come out of the other side of a really bad patch–which was made up of highs and lows all on its own.

To be sure, I still have some bad times. Nothing is all Pollyanna-Technicolor-Rose-Colored-Glasses here. I have to watch out for the pitfalls that send me down those rabbit holes of thought that have me spiraling into a funk. But I have tools to help me and support. That helps immensely.

I’ve also been throwing myself pretty hardcore into my hobbies–especially role-playing games. I’ve been creating adventures like a fiend and running the Wife through all sorts of adventures. Plus I have my regular gaming groups.

Anyway, this is all to say that if you suffer from depression and you see that wall of funk spring up in front you, there is an other side. There is hope. There are ways to help you through the morass. It’s not easy and it’s not fun, but it’s possible. And it will always be work. But it pays off in the end. You get your life back. And that’s pretty cool.

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Geekwerks Brewing (or My Misadventures in Home Brewing)

So a while back I told you about my new obsession–home brewing beer. Well…I’ve had some mixed success (or mixed failure, depending if you’re a pilsner glass half-full or half-empty sort of person).

I used the Mr. Beer™ kit to make a batch of Oktoberfest. It actually turned out not bad. A little yeasty, but not too bad. Not perfect by any stretch, but it was definitely beer. So I decided to stretch out a bit–a Scottish Ale with my 5 gallon kit rig. This one turned out–not so good. I singed the malt on the stove and was afraid this would make the beer taste burnt. Wonder of wonders, the beer turned out bland as hell–essentially beer-flavored water. So then I got out the Mr. Beer™ kit again and tried the “Velvet Velociraptor”–a fruit beer with a Czech pilsner base. This one exploded in my linen closet after one day.

But I’m not giving up! I’ve got a Mr. Beer™ American porter percolating in the closet now and I’m getting ready to try 5 gallons of a coffee porter. Fingers crossed! And that Scottish Ale? I’m letting it age a bit, see if it develops a flavor to it. We’ll see.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on at Geekwerks Brewing.

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Pop a Top, Again… (or, My New Obsession)

mr-beer-micro-brewery-beer-making-kit-275So I have a new obsession as of this year…home brewing.

A couple of summers ago, my brother bought me a Mr. Beer™ brewing kit for my birthday. Being the resident beer snob of my family, it seemed the next logical step. Either that, or he was telling me to put my money where my mouth was. Regardless, the kit sat in my garage for a couple of years as I am fundamentally lazy.

That changed this past December when I purchased the book My Beer Year by Lucy Birmingham. This book, the journey of a beer journalist to become a Certified Cicerone, inspired me to want to get out the kit and try it out.

I had to order a new tin of malt extract and yeast, as mine were past their expire dates due to my having let them sit. So I ordered an Oktoberfest blend and waited. A week later and I had everything I needed.

I watched the accompanying video and hit the online forums. I read everything I could get my hands on. And then brew day came. I followed the directions and brewed up the Oktoberfest. I then put the keg in my linen closet and prepared to wait.

Which is the hard part–the waiting (as Tom Petty will tell you).

It takes about 2-3 weeks for the yeast to do its job. So in the meantime, I bought another kit–this one a “real” brewing kit for 5 gallon batches, and started another batch of Scottish Ale.

kit1This one was a bit more complicated. It was still a kit, but involved a bit more “cooking” than the Mr. Beer™ kit. There were grains to be steeped, hops to be placed in the boil at specific times, and both dry and liquid malts. The Mr. Beer™ kit only used liquid malt, no grains, and cooked in a much shorter boil. It’s kind of the “Hamburger Helper” of brewing–but a great place to start.

I ended up scorching the malt on the bottom of the brew kettle, which will probably come back to haunt me with off-flavors in the beer later. I don’t know, we’ll see. This batch is currently percolating in the closet.

The Oktoberfest turned out pretty well, I think. I tested it this past weekend–tasted like a flat, but sweet, and tasty beer. It has now been bottled and is going through carbonation. That’s another couple of weeks. Waiting–again.

In the meantime, I’ve joined the AHA–the American Homebrewer’s Association. They give discounts at various places for homebrewers. I hope to get involved in the local homebrewers’ guild–if I can make one of their meetings. Suffice to say–I’m having a good time with this. Even if the beers I’ve done so far don’t turn out, I’m learning something and making something. That’s new for me, who doesn’t have a crafty bone in his body. I’m very excited. Plus I get to have unique beers.

As they say in the biz–Relax, don’t worry, have a home brew.

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Still Beating Heart

Aortic Root Replacement I’ve been thinking a lot lately of a Christmas I spent some 23 years ago. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been that long, but that’s the funny thing about time–it passes both slower and more quickly than we think. 

I spent Christmas of 1993 in the Intensive Care Unit of Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. I had just underwent Aortic Root Replacement surgery and was recovering. Essentially, I had part of my aorta replaced, including the valve itself, with plastic (Dacron, specifically). This was due to complications associated with Marfan Syndrome–my aorta was starting to rupture all on its own and it need reinforcement before I had a full-blown “dissection.” Such an event was what had killed my father at the age of 37. They had determined that unless I had this surgery that I would probably meet the same fate–and possibly sooner than my father did. 

I don’t remember much of actual Christmas Day–I spent most of my time sleeping or on morphine. I vaguely remember some family visitations. I do remember being thankful to be alive. I remember that much. 

I spent the days leading up to the surgery getting as many presents for the people I knew as I could with my meager income–I was a pizza delivery guy at the time. In the back of my mind I felt like this might be my final gift for them and I wanted it to count for something. I tried to play off my nervousness and fear, but secretly I wondered if I would survive this. I had never even had minor surgery before, much less open heart surgery, and I feared the worse. 

I had nightmares of waking up in the middle of the procedure. I imagined myself dying on the table and the grief of my family and friends. But outwardly, i kept my calm. The day of, as they prepped me, I “joked” that I wasn’t ready and wanted to go home. I wasn’t really joking. 

But–everything turned out fine.

I did discover that I have a low tolerance for anesthesia, though. I woke up while still intubated and kind of panicked but things were fine. Later, they had to take me in to drain some fluid off of my heart. I woke up as they were finishing that too. They told me to go back to sleep. Later still, they had to implant a pacemaker and I woke up in the middle of that. Luckily, a sheet was up between my face and chest and I asked if I should be awake and I was told “No” and was put back under.  

Eventually I was taken out of ICU and went to a regular room. There I had to get up try to walk down the hall as part of my recovery. That was one, long hall. I also had breathing exercises to do. I finally got the hang of it and eventually got to home. It was 1994 by then. 

And here I am, 43 years old and still recovering nicely. I see my cardiologist regularly and make sure I have no more rupturing. I’m on more medications than I care to mention, but I’m alive and my quality of life is nothing to complain about (though sometimes I still do). 

I am grateful for the surgeons and nurses at Presbyterian that took such good care of me. And to my friends and family who supported me while I was down during that time. Without them I wouldn’t have found the motivation to persevere. 

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For Goodness Sake: A Christmas Trifle

santaHere is a little Christmas ditty I came up with. Hopefully you enjoy it. — The Management

For Goodness Sake

I

“Where do you get the ideas for your stories?” she asked him, her eyes bright over the lip of her champagne glass.

It was a question he got often and he often grew tired of. But she was pretty and seemed genuinely interested so he bit off the first smart-assed remark that sprang to his lips and merely grinned mischievously.

“That would be telling,” he said, and winked.

She chuckled appreciatively and the conversation moved on to other topics, though they each maintained their flirtations and left together after the Christmas party came to a close.

II

He sat at the keyboard and fumed. This was the fifth time he had deleted this file and restarted. Nothing was coming to him now. Nothing at all. At least the past five times something came, however shitty. But now, nothing.

The blank screen shouted at him. YOU’RE A HACK. YOU’RE A FAILURE. YOU’RE NOTHING. He got and up and went to the kitchen. He took down some scotch from the cabinet above the fridge and poured himself a glass. He downed it in one. He poured himself another. This one he nursed a bit.

He had a contract and a deadline and no time for writer’s block. He looked at the clock. It was 10:00 pm. Tomorrow was Christmas Day and his manuscript was overdue. He’d get no work done tomorrow—he was due to be at his brother’s house and couldn’t let him or his family down. No, he had to finish tonight. But he was tapped out.

He took his drink and went to sit in the living room. He turned on the television. It’s a Wonderful Life was on, of course. He sat down and started watching, dozing off as a despondent Jimmy Stewart began to see how the world was different without him in it.

III

It was the smell that woke him. Pine and cinnamon and just a hint of leather. A strong smell, almost like a cologne. He blinked, bleary-eyed, and tried to pry his tongue from the roof of his mouth. Twilight was peeking in through the blinds. The television was now showing an early morning Mass.

He rose from the chair, stretched and looked at the clock. He had a little bit of time before he had to get dressed. Perhaps he could squeeze a bit of work in—if he could get some inspiration. He plodded to the office and stopped short of the desk, peering at it in confusion.

Sitting on top of the desk was a small package, wrapped in bright red paper with a green ribbon.

He cautiously approached the desk and picked up the package. He put it to his ear and listened. It wasn’t ticking. It smelled faintly of that cologne he had woken up to. It had a tag attached to the bow on top. It was addressed to him from Santa Claus.

“What the hell?” he said, incredulous. He set the package down and went and checked his front door. Locked. His alarm—armed. His apartment was on the 7th floor. There was no way someone came in through the window.

He returned to the office. He picked up the package and then shrugged. He started carefully unwrapping it, revealing a neat box. Inside the box was a leather-bound notebook. Embossed on the cover was a rendition of Athena springing forth from Zeus’ head.

Curious, he flipped through the notebook. Inside, in a neat handwritten script, were story ideas. Good ones. The very first one listed would get him out of his bind with his current project.

When he got to the end of the notebook, there was a circled note: BE GOOD.

He blinked.

And then he laughed.

He set the notebook down and went to the keyboard and started typing.

IV

“Where do you get your ideas?”

He inwardly groaned at the reporter beginning the interview with such a clichéd question, but did his best to not show it in his expression. He smiled tightly and said, “Santa Claus.”

The reporter frowned. “Santa Claus. I see. Like Bradbury getting his ideas from Schenectady. Cute.”

He shrugged. “Take it as you wish. You can quote me.”

The reporter recovered from this initial setback and the rest of the interview was far more insightful. However, the subject was never less than honest.

V

Success is a funny thing. It has an effect on the memory. Its beneficiaries often forget what brought it about and who lifted them up when they were down. Complacency and comfort often take the place of compassion and consideration.

He had achieved all the success he could dream of. He was a bestselling novelist and short story author. He was the toast of NPR and other media outlets. He had a huge social media following. He was a frequent guest on late night talk shows. There were even bobble-heads made in his likeness—how many writers could claim that?

But he was lonely. Oh, there were women—fans, mostly. But just fleeting hook-ups and chance meetings. His friends had dried up. He had become acerbic and sarcastic to the point of insufferableness. He didn’t have time for family gatherings any more—too many “gigs” to attend in the city. Career-wise, things couldn’t be better. His social life was busy. But emotionally, he was empty as a drum.

But he was worried now—he had reached the end of the notebook. But surely, he could come up with more ideas on his own. He was a writer, and a damn good one, before his gift. Besides, Christmas was coming soon. Perhaps Old Saint Nick would come through again for him. He’d been good. He’d given to all the right charities. He’d appeared at all the right functions. Surely, that counted for something.

VI

He arranged the bottle and the cookies again on the sideboard and decided that it would do. Twenty-year-old scotch and gourmet cookies. Only the best for Kris Kringle. He went back into the living room and decided to watch television for a while. He was too keyed up to go to bed just yet. Too much was riding on tonight.

All of the ideas in the notebook were played out. And he had tried to go on his own but he was tapped. He sat in front of the screen for hours and nothing came. The well was dry. Last night he wept and drank himself to sleep from frustration. He tried calling his brother, but his brother had been away at his son’s Christmas pageant.

Now, he was desperate. He needed a new notebook. He needed a visit from Saint Nicholas to save his career and the world he had built for himself. With these thoughts dancing in his head, he dozed as the television played George C. Scott acting out Scrooge’s redemption.

VII

He awoke once again to that peculiar cologne. Swallowing hard, he blinked and rose from the chair. He went over to sideboard. The cookies were gone, but the scotch was untouched. Shrugging, he walked to the office. He walked slowly, almost afraid of what he would find—or not find—there.

Sitting on the desk was a small package wrapped in red paper and wrapped in green ribbon.

Wide-eyed, he rushed to the desk and started ripping apart the paper and tore open the package.

Sitting inside the small box was three lumps of coal and small hand-written note. In a familiar script was written, “I said BE GOOD. Remember what is good in life and you will remember what to write. Santa.”

He picked up a piece of coal and stared at it. Then he closed his eyes and laughed, tears streaming down his cheeks.

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