Sunday, September 28, 2008

Smiling Through It: Honoring David Foster Wallace

Today was soggy and gray. The perfect fall-day prototype. A full-house day at Starbucks, and a day in general that demanded hot drinks and some type of brisk exercise. In one way---a very romantic, potentially productive day. On the other hand, this was also a day when, with only a little inclination, it would not be difficult to give into gloomy feelings or even existential despair.

Before hearing about David Foster Wallace's death earlier this month, he wasn’t on my radar. But after reading about him in the New York Times twice in one week, I find myself pondering the nature of the depression that led to his suicide. He enjoyed early fame (at age 24). As a writer, he reaped the benefits of his massive talent combined with the ability to produce. His prolific output was aided by hyper-intense, anxiety-laden discipline. Photos of Wallace evoke a sense of tender familiarity. Already he was somewhat iconic---a troubled, sensitive, admittedly depressed creative person, whose literary genius produced a strong body of nonfiction essays, reportage, and fiction, including Infinite Jest. For the record, Infinite Jest is out of stock just about everywhere. It is more than 1,000 pages of intensely rendered humor, sadness, insight, and intelligently considered contemplation of the blithe pursuit of entertainment and passive pleasure in the United States...Maybe he read Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television along the way.

David was burdened with intense depression and a sense of longing and sadness that seemed to have no center, no readily identifiable cause. For a long time, medication worked for him, until he stopped taking it. He found some of the side effects unsettling, but probably not as much as the depression that came back with a vengeance when he tried to function without drugs on board.

The lesson: Even experiencing the success of our wildest dreams won’t save us from feeling what we’re inclined to feel. I honor David today. I would have liked to drink coffee with him. I would have asked him how many cups a day he liked to drink. I would have asked him if it made him feel better, if its energizing effects helped fuel his writing. I also would have admitted to him that coffee lifts me up when I feel like I’m slipping.

Interestingly, researchers who looked at the medical records of 86,000 women over a 10-year period found that women who drank 2 to 3 cups of coffee a day were 66% less likely to commit suicide, compared with non-coffee drinkers. Even more surprising---they were also less likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Certainly, I would not tell a friend to substitute coffee for prescribed medication, but I would say, “Coffee often makes people feel much, much better.” And it’s not just the utility of it, it’s the comfort of the smell, the ritual, and the coffee-love itself.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Coffee & Optimism

The only way to contemplate the hard-to-fathom sum of $700 billion, especially while listening to the unbelievable early-morning good humor of Adaora Udoji and John Hockenberry on NPR’s “The Takeaway,” is with a strong cup of coffee. In fact, contemplating anything profound or mind-engaging or challenging often requires coffee. At least it does for me. The National Coffee Association reports that I am in good company----82% of Americans drink coffee. And in this respect, we are decidedly global, international, cosmopolitan---we help consume the 400 billion cups of coffee that are consumed each year worldwide.

And, of course, coffee is overwhelmingly good for us---significantly decreasing the risk of suicide from depression, diabetes, colon cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and liver cancer (especially if you are an alcoholic). And apparently, there are other, more subtle physical benefits that over time have a largely positive impact on us biologically.

For those of us who depend on coffee to stoke our productivity and fuel our creativity, coffee drinking is serious business. Coffee is a liquid prism through which we view the events of our lives—drop by drop, cup by cup, pound by pound. It’s important to be awake for the critical moments in life---and even seemingly mundane moments can be critical when each moment builds towards something better. Coffee is the drink of optimism. Drink coffee, be happy.