Today is September 25, 2011.
On this date 33 years ago, in 1978, a Pacific Southwest Airlines Boeing 727 crashed in San Diego after colliding with a private plane whose pilot was practicing instrument landings.
The crash killed 144 people: 132 on the plane and 12 on the ground.
Plus, it goes without saying, the poor bastard in the private plane who was practicing instrument landings, and his teacher, too.
I was in San Diego when it happened. I was on my way to a graduate seminar at San Diego State University that morning and had my car radio tuned to KFI out of Los Angeles. It was a hot, dry September day, and when I glanced out of my car window and saw an upside-down pyramid column of black smoke on the horizon to my north, I assumed that what I was looking at was just another southern California Santa-Ana wind brush fire.
But then KFI announced a major plane crash in the San Diego neighborhood of North Park.
I did a double-take. That was no brush fire I had seen.
What I had seen was the smoke (oh god, that upside-down black pyramid -- I'll never forget it) from what was up to that time the worst aviation disaster in U.S. history.
Unfortunately it didn't hold that title for long. There was a crash in Chicago just the following summer that killed more people, and there were more and bigger to come.
But this disaster, which shocked and horrified my city of San Diego when I was not-quite 23, is branded indelibly in my memory. I saw the smoke.
The disaster put PSA out of business. PSA, which for years had a "lock" on California's air commute business, e.g. San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco-Sacramento, was doomed after this catastrophe. Lockerbie '88 put Pan Am out of business. North Park, '78 put PSA out of business
But I didn't open my notebook this afternoon to make an almanac.
I'm remembering something else.
In two weeks, more or less, I will be 56 years old. And this catches me thinking back 40 years, to when I was on the eve of my 16th birthday, rather than my 56th.
I have blogged on the subject of clinical depression before. But it was exactly 40 years ago this month, on the eve of my 16th birthday, that I experienced it for the first time. Imagine being not-quite 16 and feeling that your life is over.
And yet, it really isn't that uncommon. Teenage depression is not uncommon. I had it. I'm not talking about "the blues." I'm not talking about boredom, either (although boredom in its most extreme form, what the French call ennui, is definitely part of the bouquet that is depression.) What I'm talking about is an omniverous conviction that there is nothing to look forward to, no future happiness, no future nothing. As for today, forget it. Nothing that ever gave you any pleasure now gives you pleasure anymore. You take pleasure in nothing, you hope for nothing, you look forward to nothing. Life is over.
And you're only 16.
That was me, September, 1971.
Now here we are, in September, 2011, and I'm remembering that.
My entire family, with one exception, was subject to depression. Depression is a disease, caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it can, and often does, run in families. And because depression can run in families, so can suicide, and it does. Only one member of my extended family, that I know of, ever committed suicide. But many of the rest of us have been, and are, prone to depression. My mother was. My father was. My younger sister was. I am. The only member of my immediate family who has never been depressed is my older sister Carla. And I don't know how she does it.
But now, suddenly, I know why (aside from the anniversary date) I decided to start this blog posting off with an anecdote about a plane crash.
Going into depression is crashing, just as anyone who's ever been there knows.
High school was my first time. When most people talk about high school as their "first time," they're talking about losing their virginity. When I talk about high school as my first time, I'm not talking about getting laid; I'm talking about considering suicide.
Well, okay, maybe it wasn't quite that extreme, but believe me, I was in the suburbs of that city.
And the hell of it was, I didn't even know what the hell to call what I had. I'm not sure the term "clinical depression" had even entered the language in 1971. As Bob Dylan wrote in one of his songs, "My best friend and my doctor won't even say what it is I've got."
My parents sure as hell didn't know. Which is quite ironic when you stop and think about it. Because both of my parents suffered from depression, and I'm sure they didn't know what to call it when they had it, either. In my father's case, I'd say it was called "just another day." I think my father was depressed from age 25 until the day he died.
My mother had it, too. But their generation didn't acknowledge "the doldrums" as a medical problem. It was just something you went through. And to an extent, their attitude rubbed off on me. "You're in the goddamn doldrums," my father said to me about the time I turned 16. "Well, sometimes everything just seems to be in the goddamn doldrums." That was my Dad's diagnosis. To his credit, he offered a treatment that actually helped, even though he had only a vague idea what he was treating. Dad thought a weekend job might give me something else to think about besides "the goddamn doldrums," and he arranged for a buddy of his who owned a gas station to hire me as a weekend gas-pumping boy. (Such boys existed in those days, and occasionally, girls too. But it was mostly teenage boys who ran around pumping people's gas for them, and checking their oil and cleaning their windshields. Can you imagine such a thing today?)
The point is, I never sought medical treatment for depression until I was in my early fifties. It wasn't a "macho" thing, I just didn't think there was anything doctors could do for me. Then my wife took me in hand and led me to her own happy-pill doctor, who promptly put me on Lexapro. I perked up within weeks. Then I was a believer. But it was a long time coming. Up until age 52, whenever I became depressed, I'd just mope and cry for three months until it went away by itself. I didn't know I had any choice.
I want to talk about how all of this got started. Because it's a cautionary tale, and not just for teenagers either.
I was thinking yesterday, while riding around on the Tbilisi Metro, about the sorry fate of the late Anna Nicole Smith.
There is a tie-in here, I think. It's a common, and quite deadly fallacy in American society that our happiness can be pinned on the achievement of some future goal. "If only I could become vice-president of sales, I'd be happy." "If only I could become department chairman, I'd be happy." "If only I could buy that house in Malibu, I'd be happy."
Uh-huh. And then you become VP for sales, or you become department chairman, or you get that house in Malibu, and then you look around and you start singing, like Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?"
I suspect that that's what happened to Anna Nicole Smith. She wasn't as dumb as the stand-up comics told us she was, or maybe as she wanted us to think. Okay, she wasn't Stephen Hawking, but you don't go from slinging fried chicken in some Texas podunk to having your own cable TV show, with Playboy stardom in between, without having a certain cunning as well as a certain moxie. Anna Nicole was not as dumb as she and her publicity made her out to be. But I fear that she fell into the chasm of the American fallacy: "If only I could be a star, some kind of star, I'd be happy."
Well, she did, but she wasn't. What little genuine happiness she had was in her son (surprise!) and then when he died suddenly, that was it. All the Playboy kudos and cable TV appearances in the world wouldn't make up for the loss of her child. And poor little, big-boobed self-promoter Vicki Lynn Hogan, America's cable-TV guilty pleasure, went down in a Hindenburg-style crash of drugs and alcohol.
Bless her heart; she was no dumber than millions of others who fell into the same trap.
I hate to say this, but it's probably the reason more than 90 percent of all marriages fail. People get married looking to "fix for a lifetime the passions of a day," as historian Will Durant put it, and the mass result is that family-law attorneys get to drive BMWs.
I've been married and divorced twice myself, folks, so I know something of what I'm talking about.
But this is about something that happened much earlier, something that had nothing to do with marriage, but everything to do with raised expectations and their consequences.
When I was 14, my family moved back to southern California after two years in Spokane, Washington, where my Dad had been stationed with the U.S. Border Patrol. I was deliriously happy in Spokane and fervently detested my home town of Chula Vista, CA. When I got the news that my family was moving back to Chula Vista, shortly after my 14th birthday, I locked myself in my room and cried for half an hour.
Well, I had to go; my family was going. But that fall, when I started at Chula Vista High School, I had only one idee fixe in my mind: get back to Spokane somehow. I had been happy there, and knew I would be happy again if only I could go back.
I had a junior high school buddy back in Spokane, and the following summer my parents and his mother arranged for me to come up for a visit. I got on a Greyhound bus in San Diego and took the 36-hour ride to Spokane all on my own (age 15!)
That summer visit to Spokane was a disaster. I kept getting sick, and the weather was too hot to go outside much of the time, and my friend and I got cabin fever and started fighting...by late August I was back in Chula Vista, facing the start of my junior year at Chula Vista High.
But with a difference, now. The thing I had been living for, the return to Spokane, had been realized and had turned to ashes in my mouth. What was there to live for now?
I know it sounds laughable now, but it wasn't then. What totally "freaked me out" as we used to say in those days was that all of the little things that used to give me pleasure all of a sudden gave me no pleasure at all. Nothing and none. Not music, not friends, not books, not television, not even the once-heartwarming sight of the early-morning sun making a little yellow pattern on my bedroom wall. Nothing.
And I started acting goofy. My room offered nothing but the walls closing in. I sought to avoid my room at all costs. Sometimes I would even stay after school to avoid going home. Or I'd go hang out at my friend Randy's house until I had to leave. When I did go home that fall, I would often just slip into my bathrobe and then sit in front of the TV set, enjoying nothing, until it was time to go to bed.
I was 16, and acting like I was 90.
But when you're 16, it's sometimes amazing how you bounce back from illnesses, even, in this case, mental illness.
I'm not saying I was cured overnight -- the cycle ran about three months. I didn't really come out of it until January. But there were, shall we say, signposts, and I offer these for fellow sufferers, especially those who visited that particularly malignant version of Toyland, the Land of Teenage Depression.
Autumn started to come on. The days began shortening. My birthday is in October, and ever since I was a kid, the coming of autumn meant one bad thing (going back to school) followed by a series of good things: my birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Just a few weeks ago I was discussing with my older sister the fact that, when we're down in the dumps, she and I, baroque music has a way of making us feel better. Bach, Handel and company are just good for your spirits, that's all. It just so happened that I was discovering this kind of music when I was a teen. By coincidence (or not), for my 16th birthday my buddy back in Spokane, the very same one I had visited the previous summer, sent me a tape of what has been in all the years since probably my favorite classical-music album. Its somewhat cumbersome title: Telemann: Four Concertos for Diverse Solo Instruments, featuring "First Chair" soloists of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Eugene Ormandy, conducting. This RCA recording was made in 1969, and although I don't have it anymore, to this day it remains my personal theme song of "the return to life." I listened to this wonderful recording over and over that fall, as depression maintained its firm grip on me, but ever-so-gradually began to loosen.
|Georg Phillip Telemann, 1681-1767|
God bless this man and his music!
Then along came Melody. And this time I don't mean a melody by Telemann, although those melodies were sweet enough in themselves.
I mean a girl named Melody.
Today she's an old bag with grandchildren, but let me tell you, in the fall of 1971, when I was wrestling in the grip of Mr. Sad, Melody Lynn Coker was just what the doctor ordered.
She was a year ahead of me in school, a senior to my junior. We knew each other from the school choir, in which we both sang. She had light brown hair, a slender figure and the prettiest gray-green eyes I'd ever seen.
She was also a moron, but in those days, who cared?
Many teenagers between the 1950s and the 1970s
pumped gas as part-time jobs. I was a "Shell" man.
Nobody got fresh with anybody. Or was invited to. Little has changed between my 16th birthday and my 56th. Women still chuck me aside in favor of guys who have to move their lips when they read. Not that I'm bitter or anything.
But it didn't matter, in fact it might have been a good thing that Melody, whose life revolved around the Assembly of God Church and the only ambition she ever had, which was "to get married and have a baby," (this at age 17), wanted nothing to do with me. Or Keith either. I can't speak for Keith, but for me, being in love with Melody at age 16 was a ding an sich, as Immanuel Kant might have said if he had attended Chula Vista High School. The idea was to get me out of the slough of despond, and if unrequited love were the specific for that condition, bring on unrequited love! The heroin-methadone analogy doesn't apply here: nobody WANTS to be depressed. And while Melody put me through endless hours of misery, it was certainly a healthier, more "normal" kind of misery than watching my bedroom walls close in on me.
I mean, look what might have happened to me. If Melody had returned my feelings, I might have been in harness as a husband and father at age 19. Eek. There might have been guys out there who wanted Melody that badly. I don't think I was one of them, although I will confess that, being a teenager, I did think about it. Thank God Melody didn't like me that much.
There was an Act II to the story of Melody and me, but I'll save that for another time.
Relax, there was no Act III.
But, as Virgil guided Dante through the infernal regions and up the Mount of Purgatory to where Beatrice awaited with her light show (and her put-downs), so Melody, accompanied by the tunes of Telemann, the screams of gas station customers who wanted their windshields wiped, and the thousand other bumps, quacks and squeaks that make up the noise of life, unwittingly led me out of the Valley of the Shadow of Doldrums. ("Unwittingly" is the way Melody did almost everything. But I don't care. Sometimes, even after all these years, I want to give her a swift kick in the ass, but I do bless her memory.)
I've been back in the valley of shadows a few times since I was a teen, but there's no visit to that valley like your first. And if you survive, you get to share.
Hope to see you in the mountains.