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Archive for October, 2010

It doesn’t make sense.  You hate depression, but feeling sad can be okay – and everyone loves the blues.

That’s because depression isn’t about feeling sad.  And the blues isn’t about depression.

Depression is about regressing into a child’s way of relating to the world.  You become helpless, so you lose touch with your own anger, your ability to protest against conditions that make you angry.  Instead, you accept defeat, and turn the blame, and the anger, in on yourself.

Sadness, on the other hand, is a recognition of impermanence.  It is about accepting that life is a brief opportunity for joy.

It is far from certain that impending death intensifies the experience of living.  If no one ever died, it seems like there would be less suffering and, if certain logistical details could be overcome, things might actually be more fun.

We’ll never know the answer to that conundrum.  You may lodge a protest, but life remains short, and only rushes by faster the older you get.

On the other hand, the natural human response to that set-up is to grab what’s there and enjoy it.  Sadness – the memory of impermanence – intensifies your hurry to drink deep of  good times.  In the process, every drop tastes sweeter.

The blues are songs written about sad subjects.  The levee is gonna break.  My woman done left me. That sort of thing.

One of the saddest songs ever written is a blues song –  Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” which begins like this:

I got a letter this mornin, how do you reckon it read?
It said, “Hurry, hurry, yeah, your love is dead.”

I could listen to “Death Letter Blues” forever.  It always makes me feel like cryin’.

But I always feel a little better afterward, too.

Why is that?

Because ol’ Sonny is sharing his pain with me.  And that feels good.  Makes us both feel better, or it did, back when Sonny was still kickin’.

Patients spend a lot of time in my office crying.  I once ran out of tissues – something a therapist should never do.  It was one of those panicky episodes, like running out of maple syrup at an IHOP.  People come to a therapist to cry.  I know I always did.

You come to have a good cry because it makes you feel better.  It feels good to open up and share the pain.

There’s another element to blues songs – the reason they’re not about depression.

The Blues fight back.  This is music that came up from African-American communities in the Deep South.  Those people knew oppression – heck, they knew human slavery.  But their souls were never dominated, even when their bodies might have been.

That’s the true history of the blues, and African-American music, period.  It’s subversive – it fights the power, stands up to the pain.  It stands up proudly.

The blues make good times from bad times.  They summon anger from fear and sadness, and in the process defeat depression.

The blues fight back by refusing to stay silent about the conditions the singer endures – poverty, loneliness and oppression.

Sometimes they fight back by refusing to lose their sense of humor. Check out Sonny Boy Williamson in “Fridgidaire Blues”:

No, but that’s alright mama, baby, I don’t like the way you do.
Well, but I been tryin’ two or three days, woman, you know, just to get rid of you.

There’s an obvious lesson here for beating depression.

Express your feelings someplace safe, and own your right to them.  You gotta right to sing the blues.

Don’t lose your ability to laugh at yourself, either.

Now – just in case you thought you didn’t care for the blues… here’s something sweet and lovely to tear up your soul:

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There’s one thing every lawyer, no matter how miserable, seems to agree on: law school wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was kind of fun.

Things take a nosedive when you get to a firm. That’s when you start hating life.

Maybe we should take a look at this phenomenon, and ask ourselves why this might be the case.

There are a few prominent disparities between the experience of law school and that at a big law firm.

First – in law school when you work hard, you get a reward. There is an “incentive” for “doing your best.”

I remember a guy in my class at NYU who used to grow an exam beard every semester. He’d stop shaving a couple of weeks before exams. The beard would start to get scraggly – then, after the last bluebook was filled with scribble, he’d shave it off and everyone would hit a bar to celebrate.

It was silly, light-hearted fun, designed to focus attention on completing a goal.

Contrast that to a law firm, where nothing is silly, light-hearted or fun – and there is no such thing as completing a goal.

At a firm, you don’t “complete goals.” Thanks to your massive student loans, you are now someone’s property, and you work to avoid punishment. That means you work until midnight, then go in on the weekend. Rinse. Repeat. There is no end of semester. There is no end of the week. There is no end of anything. There is no vacation. There is no end.

Your reward for working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life? If you do a good job, no one complains – and you get more work.

That is, unless there isn’t any work, in which case you’re in trouble, because that means you’re not going to make your billables, which means you’re a parasite and a useless drain on the firm and you should feel terrible about yourself and fear for your job.

It’s also possible that you didn’t do a very good job on whatever it was you were working on harder than you’ve worked on anything in your entire life. That might be because you’ve been working eighty hour weeks with no vacation and receiving a steady stream of criticism, all the while fearing for your job, which is a problem because you have a wife who wants to have a kid and you’re $180,000 in debt. The Zoloft and Klonopin your shrink prescribed don’t seem to be doing the trick. Nor does the Adderall you’re popping with alarming frequency – the left-over Adderall from the first shrink, who diagnosed you with ADHD before the second one decided it was actually depression and anxiety.

It might be that all the other work you did for the past six months at the firm was good, or even very good – until you handed in this latest assignment, which wasn’t good. However, at a law firm, if you do something that isn’t good, it doesn’t matter if you did one hundred other things that were good. You did something that wasn’t good, which means you are bad.

The reason this thing wasn’t good might be that you had no idea what you were doing because they gave you something unbelievably, insanely, laughably complicated to do over the weekend with a totally inadequate explanation.

That brings me to a second way in which law firms are not like law school.

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This month on “The Alternative” with Terry LeGrand we discussed a particularly troubling topic – suicide among LGBT teenagers.  You can listen to the show here.  My segment starts about nine minutes in, but as always, it’s worth sticking around for the whole show.

To find out more about Terry and “The Alternative” on LA Talk Radio, check out Terry’s website and the show’s website.

If you enjoy his show, you can become a Terry LeGrand “fan” on Facebook here.

Thanks, Terry!  See you next month.

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There’s a scene in John Waters’ classic film, “Female Trouble” in which Edith Massey, playing Aunt Ida, begs her nephew, Gator, to give the gay lifestyle a chance.

Gator, poor thing, refuses, which sends Ida into pleading desperation.

Here’s the dialog –

Gator: Ain’t no way; I’m straight. I like a lot of queers, but I don’t dig their equipment, you know? I like women.

Ida: But you could change! Queers are just better. I’d be so proud if you was a fag, and had a nice beautician boyfriend… I’d never have to worry.

Gator: There ain’t nothing to worry about.

Ida: I worry that you’ll work in an office! Have children! Celebrate wedding anniversaries! The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life!

Sometimes I feel that way about the world of law.

For the record, I’m not trying to change anyone’s sexual orientation here, or even suggest that it could be changed – that’s not what this scene is about. The absurd humor in Gator and Ida’s exchange derives from Waters’ inversion of the normal situation: parents are supposed to nag you to be straight, not to be gay. Just like they’re supposed to nag you to get a job and work hard and act like an adult and get serious about your life and go to law school.

But a lot of the time I feel like Aunt Ida – pleading with lawyers not to get serious and buckle down, but precisely the opposite – to give something – anything – wacky and fun and subversive – or merely indecorous – a chance. That’s because, if you’re not careful, slaving away at a big law firm can drain all the spark out of life, leaving things looking…well…sick and boring.

Now and then, after I receive a new referral, I succumb to the temptation to Google that person’s name. The first few times I did this, it was to find out whether he or she was male or female. That happens sometimes – you get an email from “Pat” or “Jamie” or “Oyedele,” and set up an appointment, then aren’t sure what to expect.

The inevitable result of an online search, in the case of a lawyer, is a page from a law firm directory. You get a passport-size photo capturing the flannel-suited subject with a slightly shocked deer-in-the-headlight expression, then the inevitable list of schools attended, bar admissions and a capsule summary of obscure “practice areas,” all rendered in lawfirm-ese: “General Practice Group,” “Corporate Capital Markets Restructuring,” “Derivatives Litigation and Regulation.”

There’s no sense of an actual person in those pages – only a scary apparition from the world of the serious and very grown-up.

I still recoil, looking at those bland, comically formal law firm directory pages – just as I wince looking at my old photo in the Sullivan & Cromwell facebook.

In the case of a new client referral, that passport photo comes to life a few days later in my office, in the form of an unhappy person confessing his loathing for his firm, bemoaning the steady stream of abuse, the sterile, alienating culture, crippling hours – the usual lawyer misery.

I wonder how ordinary people can be split in two like that, transformed simultaneously into the miserable, suffering human being sitting in my office, while the outward appearance is meticulously maintained – that official law firm image of a ring wraith from the world of the humorless.

Then I remember how S&C worked its magic on me, embalming me in its parallel dimension of un-fun.

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