BELieve it or not, it’s been one month to the day that I launched DELve! So far, I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback (it’s nice having friends who are willing to say nice things about you… in print, at least!). In this issue, you will find a truly AMAZING article, Cold Surf by Brian Tunick on one of his passions – surfing. DELve had and enlightening conversation with psychologist/talk show host/comedian James Harris. We discuss therapy, the state of comedy today and Robin Williams.
Since this issue’s theme is “Blue,” the cover photo is of an exhibit at the 9-11 Memorial in New York. Each patch of blue in the exhibit represents various artists’ impression of the shades of blue in the sky that day.
On the weekend of May 21-22, there was a “blue” moon (as defined: The third of four full moons in one season). Photographers Timothy Fox, Conor Gribbon and yours truly turned their cell phones skyward to witness this rare occurrence from three vastly different locals.
Finally, in Blue Thoughts we discuss depression. In the first of what is expected to be a three-part series, the early stages and realization of depression is explored. This is an issue close to me. Blue Thoughts is the actual account of what I went through during a very rough time in my life. SPOILER ALERT: I kicked depression’s ass… so far!
That’s a lot covered in this issue (and C.A.F.! is back too). I hope you enjoy (while it’s still free) and please tell your friends. Like us on Facebook… I think there’s a Like button included. As always, positive feedback is always appreciated and so is CONSTRUCTIVE negative feedback.
Wishing you all nothing but blue skies until next time, when DELve looks at FRIENDSHIP.
p.s. Since Blue Thoughts was such intensely difficult piece to write, the second installment might not appear in the next issue. I may need a little time. Thank you for your understanding.
Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band
— Tiny Dancer, Elton John
Dr. Bronner’s: Peppermint Pure-Castile Liquid Soap
The Avett Brothers
Soul surfin’ in pretty blue waters, waitin’ for the day that I could just call her.
— Soul Surfin’, Kottonmouth Kings
By Brian Tunick
The ice-cold water burns my face. Frigid saltwater flushes down the back of my suit, directly across my spine as a large wave twists my frame and holds me under. The human body doesn’t deal well with freezing or drowning, and I have chosen the verge of both.
Stretching the damp and cold suit over my body doesn’t feel good, but it’s pretty benign compared to what’s to come. A quick glance at the dimly lit room shows the vague outline of three dogs cuddled up with my wife in a warm bed. Very little motion. This is what people do on the dawn of a 19-degree day with at least 6” of snow in the forecast. Not me though. By now, my body heat has activated the insulation and I’m sweating in the suit. When the garage door opens, the cold air hits my face and my body only needs the sensors that detect very hot and very cold. There are no in-between temperatures. I prefer in-between temperatures. I affix the board to my bike and begin the 5-minute journey. I know I can only ride the bike a short distance until the threat of slipping on ice forces me to walk. Suits and boards are easily destroyed. Still, even a little bit of distance on the bike means a little less walking on the frozen ground. Seven millimeters of rubber seems like a lot until it becomes the only thing between you and a fresh layer of ice. A distant thundering sound is offset by the sound of a neighbor slipping while attempting to scrape ice from his windshield.
By the time I get to the water there is enough light to see the vast blue. Choppy. Strong drift. Waves that would be a little above my own six-foot body if I was standing perfectly straight. Snow and ice line the boardwalk, the stairs, and the few hundred yards of sand that lead to the water. The heat inside my hood causes itching, but the gloves prevent me from a proper scratching. I quickly spot a rip current and decide that will be my entrance. Rip currents are usually considered dangerous because they can easily pull an unsuspecting swimmer out to sea. To surfers, they are an ally, a passage, a conveyor belt that will allow for easier access to an intended destination. I make my way towards the violent ocean, and as the slope of the ground becomes more pronounced, my walking becomes more of a controlled slipping motion. A distinct feeling of dread grows in the pit of my stomach. The feeling of dread always comes first.
My booties protect me from the initial shock of cold water and I get a good minute or so of uninterrupted paddling out, with the assistance of the rip. As if on cue, a large set (several large waves) makes its way in and it’s time to speed up paddling, in hopes of avoiding the hopeless battle against crashing waves. Surfboards are extremely buoyant, and a breaking or broken wave can only be dealt with by pushing the board underwater and then diving down with it. You may be able to go under, but you can’t possibly go over. The movement includes the lifting of one’s leg and looks much like the way a duck would go under, hence the term ‘duck dive’. Duck diving is much easier on a smaller board, but in order to fight the strong current, I brought a bigger one (bigger board=more surface area=better paddling). The first wave goes well, but I feel the water seeping in through my suit. The second wave causes my suit to flush (cold water rushes in, down the back, along the spine). I don’t really have the time to lament this because the third wave is about to drill me. I feel my body thrown like a rag doll by elemental forces stronger than anything a human could possibly resist. My open mouth is filled with icy salty water and my teeth immediately begin to hurt in a way most people can only identify with slushy drinks. The cold in my suit does nothing to balance things out. I scurry to get back on the board and paddle out past the last breaking wave.
Sitting in the calm zone past the breaking waves, I take a moment to catch my breath. I can immediately feel the cold on the fingers of my right hand. A minor annoyance for now, but I know it won’t be long until it becomes a brittle cold that radiates in set-waves of pain through my bloodstream. This can’t be avoided, but paddling generates body heat, which can prolong the inevitable. Looking back at the lights of Rockaway Beach, it’s pretty easy to see that the town is either still in bed or just waking up. The thought of just how much I suffer for this obsession is never too far from my mind. I could be in a warm shower or cuddled up with dogs under covers. I could be somewhere with absolutely no chance of being drilled by a wave and drowning. No chance of head injury, being hit with a rogue surfboard, being sliced by the fins of my board, or even the media-induced fear of shark attack. No frozen fingers. ‘Why would I do this?’ quickly morphs into excitement as I see the first in a set of very large waves coming my way. I can’t really judge my positioning, but I am going to turn around and take off on the wave. If all goes well, I’ll catch the wave, stand up and surf. If not, bad stuff happens. Commitment is key: if I pull back at the last second, the drilling becomes exponentially worse, and committing to paddling while falling forward violates a number of human instincts. I’ve been doing this a long time, and it still doesn’t come easily.
The moment goes silent. My ever-present ADHD-ridden inner monologue shuts the fuck up and I take off on a steep, fast, large wave. Standing up, a wall of blue forms in front of me and I am fly-gliding down it at high speed in slow motion. I am in a good position to hopefully outrun the steepest part of the wave before it breaks. It happens, and I feel my stomach quickly move to my mouth. Every pleasure neuron in my body fires at once as the board accelerates. I ride up and down the wave, noticing that it is significantly bigger than the head-high prediction. I hear my voice scream with glee but I don’t remember commanding it to do so. After a few soul-igniting turns, I get a little more aggressive and the world flips. That’s what a high-speed wipeout looks like to a surfer, the brain is more comfortable perceiving changes to its surroundings than it is to accepting its lack of orientation. So my mind is telling me that the world has just inverted, but hey, I’ve been doing this a long time, so I know better. Slightly.
A few more great waves come and go and the hour I had to surf before work is almost up. The wave that I had marked as my last ride in did not go as planned, somehow they never do. Surfers use the phrase ‘just one more wave’ in the same way opiate addicts use the phrase ‘just one more hit’. Most surfers would allow themselves to die of starvation before they would end a session on a bad wave. Ten minutes later, a decent one comes and I ride it in, momentarily feeling like everything is right with the world.
The walk up the beach is slippery and I trip a few times. To an onlooker, it must be pretty funny seeing a guy who can surf gracefully but barely walk a few steps without tripping. The bike ride back isn’t much better, and by now both of my hands and feet are brittle and painfully cold. The warm shower is not as nice as you might imagine – any water even remotely warmer than skin inflicts a severe punishment that is only made worse by the act of removing gear. Twenty minutes later, my skin is red, the pain has seen its crescendo and no matter how badly the rest of my day goes, it’s pretty unlikely anyone will try to drown me or give me hypothermia. No matter how boring my meetings are, I know that I had more excitement today than most people have in a year. Most importantly, I answered a call that if missed would’ve been more annoying than any ‘missed call’ or ‘new voicemail received’ alert could possibly be. The ocean has a grasp on me. Losing myself in the blue is my obligation. Also, I’m stoked to see that there are supposed to be decent waves tomorrow.
I am not alone. Each year, more and more people learn to surf, and the addiction is overpowering. Non-surfers always make the assumption that it is strictly a summer sport, but the summer usually produces the smallest and least-surfable waves. New York is not known for having particularly good waves, even by East Coast standards. To compound the problem, NY is prone to afternoon wind-shifts, making the form of even our best waves suck, so dawn is the best time to go and by far the coldest. Surfers can choose to deal with cold temperatures or do without surfing, and once the addiction takes hold, they rarely choose the latter.
On any given morning when waves are present (maybe 3 days per week if we’re lucky), a handful of surfers can be seen. Surprisingly, they aren’t all good surfers. Beginners can be found making their awkward mistakes, but amateur mistakes (‘Kook moves’ if you want to be a dick about it) are more forgivable in the cold. The dedication to learning is often respected by even the most callous and impatient of experienced surfer. Surfing takes a long time to learn and more than a lifetime to master. I’ve been at it for about 30 years. I can’t do 360 aerial maneuvers. I am not chasing 90-foot waves in Portugal. As a younger and bolder man, I saw Mavericks, California’s legendary big-wave spot in person on a 25-foot day, and my own tears of fear were the closest I got to getting wet. Although I’ve taught quite a few surfers, I’m not always kind to beginners who feel entitled to violate surf etiquette (or those who can’t be bothered to learn what surf etiquette is) . Still, in sub-zero temperatures, I’m more likely to help a beginner than to tell one off. I think it was in Rhode Island where I saw graffiti on a beach wall that said:
If we don’t see you in the winter, we don’t want to see you in the summer
Makes sense to me.
Since this probably sounds like the ramblings of a maladjusted asshole, I’ll mention friends. Surf buddies. When you spend hours waiting for waves together, you really get to know the people around you. You come to trust some of these people with your lives. I have a few very good friends that I try to surf with as often as possible, but also many more buddies and well-wishers. Surfers can be aggressive, but we also make friends pretty quickly and although we can be clique-y, most of us would help another surfer in danger regardless of personal affinity. Conversation usually flows pretty freely, and it’s common to hear about the deepest and most embarrassing problems of a stranger, either directly or over a shoulder.
Discussions with passersby on the way to the beach are pretty common. Somewhere along the way, the non-surfing public was told that mimicking a Hollywood take on a surfers accent (this is NY for fuck’s sake, we don’t talk like that) is highly regarded. It isn’t. Still, others ask why I do what I do. My mood and their posture determine the level of snark in my answer. My common replies are:
‘Because the other option is not surfing’
‘The fun I have doing this is worth it.’
‘That guy on Craigslist swore it was a water-snowboard. I knew that sounded wrong…’
I am usually quick to assure people that the act isn’t quite as physically taxing as it looks. My more cutting answers are usually reserved for those who feel the need to remind me that what I’m doing is stupid. I’m the one with the frostbitten toes, I’m well aware, thanks.
The type of people who surf in NY are not easily marginalized. My own group of friends come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages and sexual orientations. Actually, not all shapes. Surfers are almost always in good shape. Most are in their late 20’s to mid 30’s. All are well-educated, intelligent and self-sufficient. All are well-travelled; for some reason, the wandering spirit tends to go pretty well with waves. Most of us live in Rockaway Beach, a Queens town that has an easily accessible ocean and often produces a decent wave. Even before the Ramones it was known as a surf town, but lately it has seen a growing population of surfers. None of us are from here. The town itself is very small (especially by NYC standards), and has a cross-section of surfing experience and ability. Most of the older surfers are white men; it is pretty easy to see how much more diverse surfers have become in the last 10 years or so.
As seasons change, so does the gear. In early summer, a thin suit with bare hands and feet is fine. As temperatures drop, suits thicken and gloves, boots and hoods become necessary. Getting in and out of a wetsuit in public without getting frostbite or an indecent exposure ticket is also an acquired skill. The thicker the gear, the harder that is to do. Also, pee breaks are not a thing, so surfers eventually just learn to use the suit (there is an upside to that water rushing in). Surfer problems may be trite, but they are very real. No discussion of surfer problems would be complete without mention of the nasal waterspout. Water often accumulates in the nasal cavity (way more than you would expect). This comes out when it wants to, and that usually happens later in the day and rarely when you would want it to.
People are usually surprised to see people carrying surfboards in New York City, and more so when temperatures drop below 80. When snow is on the ground, most people I’ve spoken with assume that I am outright insane. In reality, every surfer has a reason to do what he or she does, and there really are no bad ones. It’s great exercise and loads of fun. It soothes the soul. It’s more therapeutic than the entire pharmacy. Surfers tend to be outdoorsy, humorous, adventurous, loyal and well-cultured. Groups of surf friends are often close in ways that only 80’s sitcom families could ever match. Mind you, surfing is an addiction that can easily take over a life and at least one room of a home for surfboard storage (which I still insist is perfectly reasonable). It would be nice to say that the only person whose winter plunge into the blue I could justify is my own, but in all honesty, I’m not even sure I can do that. What I do know is that as long as the ocean keeps producing waves, and my body keeps working, I’ll be returning to that water. I’d rather that it be during a freak swell in July when the ocean is warm enough to surf in boardshorts, but the fact is, this is still New York and the best waves don’t want to make my life that easy.
Brian Tunick, MHA, RRT-NPS is an Administrator at a New York City hospital and a Professor of Cardiopulmonary Diagnostics. He lives in Rockaway Beach, NY with his wife and three dogs. When there aren’t good waves, he works, teaches, bikes, skates, snowboards and races motorcycles. When there are good waves, he will be in the water, regardless of pending obligation.
Blue Moon Over…
Blue moon, you knew just what I was there for, you heard me saying a prayer for
Someone I really could care for
— Blue Moon, Billie Holliday
Blues has got me, there is teardrops in my eyes.
Dark is the Night, B.B. King
by Stephen Holmes
James Harris is a psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles who also happens to have an interesting second career. Dr. Harris not only treats people from his office but he also does it from the stage. Harris has a dual career as a stand-up comedian. In addition, he is co-host of the television show “James and Sunda” (Sunda being fellow comedian, Sunda Croonquist) on Jewish Life TV. DELve was able to talk to Harris (via phone) about navigating the two fields, the state of comedy today and Robin Williams, among other things.
When asked which career came first therapist or comedy, Dr. Harris joked, “Growing up, I wasn’t providing therapy to my friends and teachers. At that point in my life I was just making people laugh.” Dr. Harris explained how comedy was the thing that guided him from grade school and beyond. “Once I got to high school, I could make my teachers laugh so things got easier,” prior to that, the structure of grade school forced him to stifle his comedic side. Eventually, Harris used stand up to partially pay for graduate school. It’s up to the therapist to examine and dig as to why the patient is in his office and once you’re in front of the audience, you have to do the same thing. If it’s not working in either place, adjustments have to be made.
Sometimes comedians “go there” and are criticized for being too controversial or insensitive, especially when it comes to current events, but Harris thinks it’s all about timing. The further away from the event the easier it is to make jokes. Comedians do have to tread lightly. If comedians want to grow their brand, they can’t be too controversial. “We’ve seen what’s happened to Gilbert Godfrey, he lost Aflac over things he said. Tracy Morgan came under fire too.”
The topic turns to Robin Williams, who straddled both worlds. Williams is not the only comedian to either die by suicide or die from drug abuse, these people seem to be prone to addiction and depression. “His (Williams) suicide received lots of attention, and it was a terrible tragedy. People in show business, in general, have their struggles and are faced with unique challenges that can overrun a strong and healthy psychological immune system.” Harris goes on, “Now, you do have to be a little nutty to go on stage, but not in a clinical sense. There is a thrill and it’s risky. I think a lot of risk takers go into comedy.”
Racy or “blue” comedy was once reserved smoky lounges back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Lenny Bruce and Redd Foxx were leaders in this type of comedy and Bruce was arrested several times over his act. What do you think was the turning point where racier topics became more accepted?
“If you wanted to get on ‘The Tonight Show’ comedians had to be able to do five to seven minutes of clean material.” Harris goes on to say, “ Then, HBO came along and comedians had an entire program to fill and had more freedom to say what they wanted. Things are changing still because of cell phones. Comedians have to be more careful what they say because of them. Look what happened with Michael Richards.”
Do you think there could be a Don Rickles today? “He has amazing intuition, he would still have a career if he started out today.” Harris believes that Rickles knew when to dial it back.
Finally, who’s funnier, Freud or Jung?
“Freud… he was Jewish.”
You’re left forever blue.
— Forever Blue, Chris Isaak
The beginning stage of depression is like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. You spin around until you’re dizzy then you attempt to blindly pinpoint the problem. Unlike the game, I wasn’t sure what was happening or even how to play. Issues flew at me and I became adept at swatting them away but eventually, my arms got tired. The barrage of problems started attaching to me and weighing me down.
One of the catalysts for my emotional nosedive was my father. Not that I was still nursing some long-harbored resentments from childhood (I had come to terms with and was moving past those). We weren’t locked in a battle for the family fortune (there was none). In short order he was diagnosed with dementia, admitted to a nursing home and died, all within five months. While, I was grateful for those months, a time we had to connect and I could see him in a kinder light, it was the beginning of my slide. Power-of-attorney, nursing home decisions and bills, lawyers and funeral arrangements pressed down so heavily on me that I didn’t feel I could move my head enough to even attempt a search for solutions. In addition to everything else, just days before my dad’s death, the hospice worker met with my sister and me to discuss the inevitable — not IF, but WHEN. We weren’t able to grieve at the appropriate time, we were forced to mourn before the actual event. In a haze, I shakily signed what was basically an end-of-life edict. I felt like I just let things happen. I felt like I failed.
No one can fully understand the contempt I had for myself. I couldn’t get my act together. Every minor thing someone would say to me in passing would cause me to doubt myself and crush my spirit. Male ego kept telling me to stop bitching, I could get through this. When I finally figured out things weren’t changing, I heard my grandmother and thousands of Black grandmothers telling me to “pray over it,” because that is what we were raised to do… leave it in God’s capable hands. My faith never waivered, but the solutions never completely developed.
- Sad, anxious, excessive crying [check]
- Reduced/increased appetite [check]
- Persistent physical symptoms that don’t respond to treatment (headaches, chronic pain, etc.)
- Irritability/restlessness [check]
- Decreased energy/fatigue [check]
- Feelings of guilt/worthlessness/helplessness/hopelessness/pessimism [check X5]
- Sleeping too much or too little [check]
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities [check]
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions [check]
- Thoughts of death or suicide [?]
As long as I kept active, things were fine. Preparing for work, working, going to the gym — I functioned normally. I did everything needing to be done. When my day started to wind down, the panic would settle in like it had a long, grueling day and I was the reward, its comfy chair. It took such possession that I didn’t want to talk to anyone; eating caused a knot to grown in my stomach that stretched to my throat. The worst part, the nightly crying sessions.
“Why can’t people see me?” – If I was hurting this badly, why didn’t anybody else see what was going on?
“Why can’t I get anywhere?” – Every time I thought I was making headway, something kept bringing me back to the exact spot I stood.
“God, I hate this, I hate this, I hate this!” — I said this in reference to what I was feeling and the person I had become.
“I can’t stand being around me!”
“I need to get out, I need to go somewhere!” – I wanted to move away, get a fresh start but since everything I did kept me locked in one place, I couldn’t run (as if that was the solution).
These are some of the things I whispered to myself in the dark, tears flowing from my eyes. I am thankful for the distractions of those whisperings because if I stopped, if I paused to listen, I knew other thoughts were forming.
I wasn’t alone in my misery. People all around me were suffering through trials of their own. I wanted them to be what I wasn’t… okay. I wanted to be the one they counted on. It’s not that what was going on with me wasn’t important, it was just a way for me to forget. Their problems was my anesthetic. Besides, I’m not a dude who finds it easy to talk about himself. I was much more comfortable listening. That’s why, when Roger called, I couldn’t believe the words I found myself suddenly saying, “I feel… lost.” It was the first time I said it out loud.