Take Me (Away From) Home, Country Roads

My most treasured fall tradition has nothing to do with pumpkins or apples, Halloween or Thanksgiving, football or the World Series. Although it does involve eating a cornucopia’s worth of great food, it does feel like a festive holiday, and the subject of a certain gridiron-based game has been known to come up from time to time during this pre-Halloween holiday.

Every autumn since roughly 2003, my Messiah College buddies have organized a weekend camping trip featuring either hiking or canoeing. And every year since 2014, after I moved back east from Colorado, I have gladly taken part in this grand tradition.

Many years, we’ve canoed down the mild (and sometimes not-so-mild) rapids of various rivers of West Virginia or Pennsylvania. Or some years, we’ve hiked in the beautifully desolate wilderness of West Virginia. Including one unforgettable late October trip in 2016 when we camped atop Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state, and were pummeled by howling winds and ice-encrusted snow on our first night. I felt like I was back in Colorado (albeit at 4,800 feet rather than 2 to 3 times that altitude). It was magnificent! And even more magnificent when recollecting it from the warm confines of my home.

Another year, in honor of a few of us turning, 40, we opted to eschew physical exertions entirely and rent a double-decker houseboat on Raystown Lake. The most exercise we managed to get on that trip was walking up the stairs to the banana-shaped waterslide, hucking ourselves into the cool September water, then climbing the ladder to get back on the boat so we could go unwind in the hot tub.

We felt like kings that year. Kings eating peanut butter Oreos in wet swim trunks. (For some reason, I specifically remember those Oreos.)

Fast forward to this year, which we’ll call “Covid Year 2,” when we planned another late October camping-and-hiking trip in West Virginia. It was similar to the epic saga of 2016, but without the snow. We were still pelted with a bit of rain and some wind, but thankfully the wind was far less howling and the elements were decidedly less pummeling. What a joy it is to experience the West Virginia wilderness in the dead of (a very alive) autumn! It’s a visual, a tactile, and — given the pervasive scent of campfire — an olfactory delight beyond comparison. As far as wildernesses go, I highly recommend it.

Here’s our cast of characters:

  1. Nate from Philly, one of my dearest friends on earth and the longstanding heart and soul of the group.
  2. Josh from Harrisburg, our resident brilliant camp chef, resident group historian, and resident lovable goofball.
  3. Chris from North Carolina, our trip planner, our lead (and only) guitarist, and the ever-good-humored moral center of the group.
  4. Matt from New York, our co-group historian with an ironclad memory, and our cheeky jester who makes sure that we (maybe me most of all) don’t take ourselves too seriously.
  5. Rodney from Harrisburg, our insightful utility guy, who this year took the reins of both the trip-planning and the meal-cooking endeavors. Also a great numbers guy, when needed.
  6. George from Indiana, our lovably soft-spoken mensch and non-partisan election expert who joined our ranks last year and immediately became a permanent member of the band. (A band which, again, features only one guitarist. The rest of us are background vocalists.)
  7. And of course, me. It’s not my place to pinpoint my role in the group. That’s like coming up with your own nickname, right? Suffice it to say that I’m grateful to be in the band.
From L-R: me, George, Rodney, Josh, Nate, Chris, and Matt.

The itinerary this year was straightforward. Besides eating and conversating around the campfire for hours on end, there were only two “activities” on our 2-night, 1-day camping trip. We embarked on a hike in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, and we went hot tubbing at Canaan Valley lodge (which we could access by virtue of our campground status).

Dolly’s sod was particularly muddy this year, and the October wind made for some brisk hiking. We trekked out to Rohrbaugh Cliffs, a jagged rock outcropping that offered a stunning view of the foliage-bejeweled wilderness. En route, we stopped in a clearing to eat bagels with peanut butter and dill-pickle Pringles (which several of us agree oddly evoked a McDonald’s cheeseburger), among other satisfyingly salt-spangled snacks. Then we continued slogging through the bog of a mud-saturated trail on an overcast day in woods that felt more like an autumn-streaked rainforest. A cross between Appalachia and the Amazon.

One of the great things about hiking in a group like this one is that over the course of the journey, you end up being adjacent to every other member of the group. You stop to take a picture (or a leak) and as a result of the brief stoppage, you end up near someone different in the caravan. So when you’re a talkative extrovert like me, you end up having a series of episodic conversations with 6 different people in 4 hours.

I love everything about that. Particularly because every single person in this group is well worth bending ears and chewing the fat with. I savored the chance to casually interview each of my fellow Falcon alums and glean wisdom from their varying perspectives as fellow dads, husbands, citizens, and human beings.

I learned about everyone’s kids — Chris’ 1, Nate’s 2, George’s 2, Rodney’s 3, Josh’s 4, and Matt’s 6 (plus 2 grandkids!). And as is the case every year, I derived inspiration for my own fatherly journey from these men who also deeply relish the job of raising small human beings.

After piling back into Rodney’s minivan, while masked since Delta is still alive and well, we headed back to the campsite for another sumptuous dinner and hours upon hours of further animated conversation.

We discussed fatherhood, music, elections, football, job transitions, pre-mid-life crises, antidepressants, and our ever-present scrapbook of college memories from 20 years ago. And in honor of the just-released Dune, we talked about sci-fi novels and movies since 57-71% of the group are thoughtful sci-fi buffs.

On a side note, I have now learned that my entry point into sci-fi literature, if I find time to enter it, should definitely be Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

What about the food, you might ask? (Were you asking about that, or am I just a huge fan of that topic?) The first night, we ate burgers with all the fixins and fire-encrusted sweet potatoes with butter and brown sugar. The second night, we ate steak (or veggie sausage) fajitas with yellow rice and beans. We all agreed it was a bang-up culinary job by Chef Rodney, filling in this year for Chef Josh. Gordon Ramsey would have been proud — no, scratch that, he’s a jerk, and nothing like either of our camp chefs. Bobby Flay would have been proud.

After eating our campfire-marinated delicacies, we marinated our mildly creaky 40-year-old bodies in the hot tub at the adjacent Canaan Valley resort. Hopefully the sight of 7 mostly bearded dudes climbing into a hot tub on Halloween week didn’t spook the kids and parents who were already there. We more than doubled the jacuzzian population in one fell swoop (and quadrupled the beard quotient).

For posterity, I will add that one of us, a great guy who will remain unnamed, accidentally splashed a woman who was roughly our age and then warmly assured her, “Don’t worry, I’m a nice young man!”

I’d like to think that we’re all fairly nice young men. (Well, fairly nice at least.)

Here’s to many more years of epic autumn camping trips as we all grow older and our kids all eventually go off to college. Heck, maybe once that happens we’ll have time to make these trips 3- or 4-day affairs instead of our usual 1.5 to 2!

But whether or not we can ever swing more than 2 days out of 365, I’m just grateful that I know 6 guys (from 2 decades ago) whom I would gladly spend a few days and nights in the wilderness with.

Thanks for the memories, fellas. See you next year.

Campfires, Conspiracy Cults, and Civility

It was supposed to be just a regular, ordinary Sunday hike on the Appalachian Trail. I planned to hike as far and as fast as I could with the 2 hours I had available.

But best-laid hiking plans rarely go off exactly as planned for an extrovert who’s feeling extra-verted lately.

As I approached one of those trusty wooden A.T. shelters that give rest to the weary (through-hikers), I saw a plume of smoke wafting up from a campfire into the autumn-hued trees. Given that an October campfire is possibly my #1 favorite olfactory pleasure, I couldn’t resist. I was drawn to the flames like a moth to… well, you know. But without the impending doom part.

I wandered over to the shelter and there were 2 guys preparing their breakfast and packing their gear. I asked if I could borrow a whiff of their campfire, and they were affably amenable.

Thus commenced one of the most fascinating and deeply unhinged conversations I’ve had in ages.

Their names, I learned later, were Matt and Mark. Our chat started innocently, with close to 10 minutes of warmly exchanged pleasantries about such near-universal pleasures as camping, campfires, fatherhood, nostalgia, and the sodium-laden wonder of Ramen noodles.

I noticed 2 minutes into our conversation that Matt, the main guy, was wearing a beige Trump 2024 baseball cap. (I would have noticed 2 minutes earlier if it had been one of those ubiquitous bright red MAGA hats.) I tucked this fact into the back of my mind, determined not to let it affect my enjoyment of a conversation that, on a pristine autumn morning, had no reason to dive into the murky waters of politics.

I’m not sure what prompted Matt to veer in this direction, but about 10 minutes into our enjoyable chat, he told me that his mission in life is “to learn about freedom, and how we lost all of it in this country.” This proved to be something of a thesis statement for him.

I will now attempt to reconstruct as much of Matt’s and Mark’s worldview as I can, even though my recollection will be scattershot because their rhetoric was dense with manically conveyed thoughts and conspiracies. This is as good as I can do. Try to keep up. (I certainly couldn’t.)

*takes deep breath*

In 1933, when FDR launched the New Deal, Americans immediately lost all of our constitutionally granted freedoms. The New Deal essentially negated the Constitution. When FDR abandoned the gold standard, he rendered our currency worthless — a collective illusion with no actual substance. So ever since that point, every transaction we have engaged in as a country or as individual citizens is predicated on a now-88-year-old lie.

Also, no one owns anything. No one. Even if you’ve paid off the mortgage of your house, you don’t own the house. This has something to do with bankers and certificates, but gosh darn it if I can explain it to you. Matt seemed to understand it perfectly, though, and relayed it to me in breathless, cascading, dizzying stream-of-thought.

Then there’s the fact, unbeknownst to me, that the legal system is fraudulent to its core. The way courtrooms are set up, defendants are essentially treated as enemy combatants with no fundamental rights. Believe it or not, this can be seen in the U.S. flags that hang in courtrooms, since they have gold trim around the edges, denoting that they’re battle flags. So every courtroom is a battlefield, and every judge is essentially a military tribunal that’s unilaterally prosecuting enemy combatants.

You heard me right: The gold trim of the flag is what proves this. Heck, I didn’t even know that flags were gilded. I’ll have to look more closely next time I see Old Glory.

Also, here’s an epic bombshell for you. Are you ready?

Dr. Fauci planned the pandemic, i.e. the “plandemic.”

(Incidentally, I always thought that term was a conspiracy based somehow on “plants.” I had no idea it was short for “planned pandemic.”)

Full disclosure: I may have blacked out slightly during this portion of Matt’s soliloquy. I just know — finally, since it’s been hidden from my view until now — that Anthony Fauci himself, part of a shadowy cabal, planned the coronavirus pandemic in order to cull the world’s population. In fact, that cabal, which runs everything, wants to reduce the world’s population to only 800 or 900 million people. Which means they still have a lot of work to do, and many more “plandemics” to plan.

Matt and Mark have learned much of this, and I’m not making any of this up, from an online entity who goes by “Neo” and charges money for a class that takes place somewhere in the vicinity of the dark web. These two guys, who are both satisfied customers, could not reveal to me either the identity of “Neo” or where one would go online to sign up. Everything’s on a need-to-know basis, and you have to know someone in order to get the secret password and take the elusive red pill.

So even though he learned from “Neo,” Matt essentially saw himself as the Neo character in our conversation. He had learned the truth, and as a result he was also acting as my Morpheus. (But without the cool trenchcoat and sunglasses.)

Somehow I don’t think the Wachowski sisters would endorse this Matrix appropriation.

I could go on, regaling you with details of Matt’s and Mark’s ideology. But my primary takeaway that day wasn’t about conspiracies.

It was about civility.

If I had encountered either of these fellow and their ideas in an online space, like a message board or a Facebook comment thread, I would have probably reacted with undiluted scorn and sarcasm. I would likely not have deemed their ideas worthy of dignifying with either a thoughtful response or a warmly civil tone. I would have been snappy and churlish.

But meeting these two guys in the flesh, eye to eye, and in the great outdoors on a pristine autumn day no less, utterly transformed the nature of our interaction.

Matt and Mark were totally civil in their breathless explanation of their ideas. And I was totally civil in my careful responses to their ideas. I listened more than I talked. Then I asked some probing push-back questions, without a drop of contempt. I didn’t grind an axe or lob accusations. I argued in good faith. And in their own way, they did too. All three of us fully assumed each other’s humanity.

I made it clear that I was deeply skeptical of a number of their premises. But I did it in a way that didn’t get their hackles up. I didn’t put them on the defensive, and they didn’t put me on the defensive either. It was actually quite a beautiful thing.

In fact, because of the fact that I was inclined to be civil, I was able to say more than I would have been able to say if I had come out guns blazing against their raving rhetoric. They were amenable to my periodic pushback because I had honored them by fully granting them to space to explain their beliefs.

This simply doesn’t happen, almost ever, in online spaces. We snark and snipe at each other. We lob epithets when we feel the other person is delusional in their ideas. We dig in our heels and refuse to listen, to learn, to let another human being explain himself.

What we need is to look each other in the eye again. We need to re-learn the art of discussion and debate in actual physical spaces. Spaces where we will, if we are still civil at our core, be vastly more likely to honor each other’s free expression.

And as a result, we might even be more likely to actually be able to persuade each other of our point of view now and then. Or to be persuaded now and then of someone else’s.

I won’t be falling for conspiracy theories anytime soon. Certainly not about shadowy New Deal-derived cabals or a “plandemic” orchestrated by Dr. Fauci.

But you know what I will do, quite happily?

Affably chat with anyone who will affably chat with me.

As long as you aren’t spouting hate, I am very happy to talk with you.

In person. Preferably on the Appalachian Trail. Or at a park. On a cool autumn day. With an October breeze blowing right into my soul.

A soul that each of us shares. (Whether we believe truth or nonsense.)

A soul that unites us all, if only we can remember that central fact.

A soul that makes each of us inherently worth listening to.

And inherently worth seeing.

The Greysonian Museum: Walking Tour of a Mind Untethered

The 8th wonder of the world, in my arguably not-so-humble opinion, is my son. Greyson Francis Wingert. (Incidentally, the 9th wonder, which emerged in the world 2 years later, is Violet Skye Marie. But I’ll save that fatherly soliloquy for another day.)

The Taj Mahal? Machu Picchu? The Great Wall of China? They’re all wonder-inducing, sure. Wonderful, even.

But have you ever met a 5-year-old who can identify a wide majority of the world’s birds, along with some of their scientific names? A kindergartener who is an expert on most animals, both extant and extinct, and their habitats? A human being who has been alive for only half a decade, but can sometimes, somehow, run the table on a creature-themed ‘Jeopardy!’ category?

And that’s just the animal side of Greyson’s wonder-ousness.

For the sake of posterity, and as a monument to a moment in time, below is a collection of some of my favorite Greysonisms from this spring and summer.

The span of time in which my sweet boy uttered these words was an emotionally intense span for me. Half of it was marked by relative clarity (relative to the psychologically grueling pandemic in which that clarity existed). And the other half of it was afflicted by an agonizing bout of depression. As such, many of these utterances were an oasis of sorts for me. A brief flash of sweetness and light, hope and clarity, in the midst of my roiling mental anguish.

So drink deep of Greyson’s offbeat wonder. His goofy wordplay. His unvarnished innocence.

All 3 of which are among my favorite intoxicants on earth.

“This [book] says that elephants can be domesticated! But how could an elephant even fit through a door?”

Greyson has a fascinating way of processing information that is somehow both exactingly literal and wildly imaginative. Watching his mind work is pure delight.

Below is another example of this literal-but-imaginative tendency, a quote which he uttered while we were playing near a creek. I had mentioned the term “creek bed” and the mental gears of my then-4-year-old kicked in immediately.

“Creek bed, stream bed, river bed…” 

*thinks for a bit* 

“Does a sink or a bathtub have a bed?”

Have you ever even considered the oddness of the word “bed” in that context? Or did your mind, like mine, pass over this linguistic quirk because “river bed” is just a phrase you’ve heard a thousand times?

Well, Greyson doesn’t pass over anything lightly. And that’s just one kind of light that radiates from the vast, open sky of his mind.

Another kind of light is his glistening connection to nature, as seen below.

“I love rocks and gravel and dirt and trees and animals and birds and sticks and flowers and everything in nature!”

My boy has reveled in the great outdoors ever since he was a baby, when I would take him out into the yard every day to sit in the “papa chair” (i.e. my lap, which he fit in comfortably, as if it had been designed for that very purpose) during the warm, hazy, and exhaustingly election-focused days of summer 2016. Resting comfortably in his own personal chair, Greyson would stare up at the trees and the sky, reverent and riveted, for as long as I would leave him there.

As Calvin (he of the Hobbesian school of thought) once said about being outdoors in the summertime:

The days are just packed.

Greyson was transfixed by the wonders of the natural world then, and he still is today, albeit in a more goofy and kinetic way. Taking him on a hike is an exercise in pure delight, and it allows me to notice things I wouldn’t have noticed on my own. Without fail, either he or Violet will point something out along the trail that eludes my adult gaze.

Then there was the time I showed Greyson an album called Everything and Nothing by Hammock, who happens to be one of my favorite bands on earth. Without missing a beat, he submitted this query:

“How can there be everything but also nothing? That couldn’t happen. If there’s lots of things, there can’t be nothing.”

I opted not to delve too deep into dualism or the history of paradoxical philosophy (mostly because, um, I’m not acquainted with it). But I gave him the best example I could summon of an everything-but-also-nothing concept. And I smiled warmly to myself that my little boy is so inquisitive and so engaged by language that his brow was furrowed by this odd turn of phrase.

Greyson sometimes says things that instantly explode my heart, either with joy or with that unique brand of heartbreak that only parents and those who care deeply for children can know. That beautiful, bittersweet ache that comes from being entrusted with the ultimate well-being of a tiny, innocent body and soul. Here is one of those heart-exploding utterances.

“I do not call myself a sad part of the world.”

I wish I could remember what prompted this one. But my gosh. How perfect.

I too would not dream of calling my sweet buddy boy a sad part of the world. Not by a long shot. But he may be afflicted by sadness someday, since half of his genes come from someone who was fully torpedoed by the worst kind of blistering sadness last summer. It’s agonizing to imagine that my kids might someday be waylaid by the depression that knocked me sideways. I would do anything to protect them from such a fate.

But all I can really do is raise Greyson and Violet with an honest understanding of the complexity of the world (eventually, when they get a bit older) and an honest understanding of the complexity of human emotion (right now, any chance I can get).

And I’m doing my best. I’ve even tried to, in a rudimentary way, explain to both Greyson and Violet that I was very sad and very tired last summer, that I didn’t feel well, and that as a result I didn’t act like myself at all.

I don’t know how much they’ve been able to understand this when I bring it up, or how much they may have picked up on it while it was actually happening. But I think it’s vital that I level with them about sadness. So that they don’t panic when they feel their first hint of that shadowy gloom, whenever that might be.

Also, someday I need to show them Inside Out. That one’s in my parenting cinematic canon.

“Do you like the world?”… “Do you like everything?”

What a great interviewer this boy can be! It was fun to summon a thoughtful response to this one, another of his heart-exploders. What would you say to this question right now? What would you have said to this question in 1990? In 2000? In 2010? Are those answers different? Ask yourself why.

I could write a whole blog post just about my response to these two Greysonian questions. But instead, I’ll just leave this reflection here, which popped into my mind a few days ago.

 “What a messed-up world we live in,” he said mournfully to his wife.

And it was the truth.

“What a beautiful world we live in!”, he said ecstastically to his kids.

And it was the truth.

“Is there any houses in the moon? Is there any buildings in the moon? Is there any trees in the moon? Is there any grass in the moon? What if you walked in the moon? Is there any walking sticks in the moon? Is there any animals in the moon?”

This series of questions, most of which were punctuated by my increasingly bemused “well, no” answers, illustrates how thorough Greyson is in interrogating a subject that piques his interest. I love how questions like this, from either him or Violet, reveal to me how many things I take for granted. Things that I simply know (or assume) to be true, and forget that I only know them because I learned those things at some unspecified point in my childhood.

Things like the fact that the moon, and the other planets, are barren of organic life. (I’m no scientist, so I might be technically wrong about that. Please let me know so I can correct both myself and Greyson ASAP.)

Violet [looking out the window at the bird feeder]: “Blue-bird, hum-bird, fly, coat, shoes!”

Greyson: ”Birds don’t wear coats or shoes! Or hats or pants or shirts or anything at all!”

This one is pretty self-explanatory. But it’s a sterling example of the kind of goofy repartee that Greyson and Violet share, in which one of them saying something offbeat and the other one laughs or playfully corrects them. Sometimes it can feel like a free improv show in our own house! Now there’s a bonus side benefit of parenting that I didn’t necessarily anticipate.

Speaking of bird-themed quotes, here’s another one. For more than a year, and maybe closer to two, Greyson was singularly obsessed with birds. (He still likes them, but he’s moved on to big cats.) Combine that with his love of wordplay, inherited directly from his pops, and you get this exchange:

Me: “Greyson, do your Velcro.”

Greyson: *thinks for a few seconds* “What if there was a Vel-raven? Or a Vel-jackdaw!”

Just a Greysonian classic. Nothing more needs to be said.

Finally, here is a quote that he uttered on a recurring basis during spring and summer whenever I told him that I would only be able to work from home for a few more months. I was depressed during most of this time frame, and the prospect of going back to work on the Widener campus was daunting for a half-dozen different reasons. The primary one being that I couldn’t bear the thought of suddenly losing hours upon hours of time each day when I was adjacent to the kids, able to take them out for walks or just read them a random book in the middle of the day.

I worked at home for 17 consecutive months, and this was both the greatest blessing (given the kids’ ages) and the most arduous burden (given the claustrophobia of quarantine life) that I could have asked for. But it twisted my heart in knots to count down the days to when I would re-embark on my 40-minute commute and my in-person 9-to-5 job.

I pictured the kids maybe being traumatized, and I pictured myself definitely being even more traumatized. So imagine the intensity of my fatherly ache when Greyson responded, with a furrowed brow and a quivery firmness in his voice:

“You can *never* go back to work every day at Widener. I will *not* let you.”

He loves me. My little boy loves me.

That’s it. That’s the takeaway.

And that, ultimately, is one of the main things that got me through the transition away from remote working. (Which ended up being far smoother than I could have expected.)

Greyson loves me.

And I love Greyson.

To Neptune and back.

The Worst Summer of My Life, Chapter 11: Dealing (with) Drugs

A quick recap: Doctor #1 was a bombastic bull in the china shop of my already-cracked emotions. And Doctor #2, despite her better bedside manner overall, also managed to gaslight me at a time when — like a Californian during an earthquake — I was unsure of the ground beneath my feet.

In a sane world with a sane health care system, I would have looked for Doctor #3, preferably a mental health specialist. Someone who could offer psychotherapy of some kind. But in this world, and in this country, I had been charged over $200 for my two doctor’s visits (despite them consisting of no tests, just conversation), plus another $70 for a third-party blood test. I wasn’t about to break our frugal family bank by going to a specialist whose services would likely, unconscionably, not be covered by our insurance. I already felt unreasonably guilty for what I had spent on being depressed.

So I tried to soldier on. The problem is, as The Killers once sang:

“I’ve got soul, but I’m… not a soldier.”

Which is not to say, in the slightest, that beating depression is a matter of just toughing it out. There is no emotional weaponry that can, on its own, defeat genuine depression. When you’re going head-to-head with a serotonin deficiency in your head, it’s not a fair fight.

I wasn’t able to soldier on, not because of any internal deficiency of emotional toughness. I wasn’t able to soldier on because depression is a mental sickness. I never fully understood that before. I always thought of depression as beatable if you simply deployed the right behavioral and emotional tools. I now realize that this perception of “the darker angels of our nature” (to modify and totally recontextualize Lincoln’s words) is deficient.

But I’ll get back to that later. For now, let me try to lay out the pharmaceutical sequence of events as best as I can. The plot line of my summer meds was almost as convoluted as a Christopher Nolan screenplay, and I’m not sure I remember it all myself. (Which, incidentally, is also true of most Christopher Nolan screenplays).

Doctor #1 didn’t prescribe me anything after my initial visit, even though he would have been glad to, because I insisted that he not prescribe me anything.

A week later, I relented enough to accept hydroxyzine, a fairly mild anti-anxiety prescription, from Doctor #2. She also recommended I get some over-the-counter melatonin to help overcome my debilitating insomnia. Both of these options were based on me still adamantly not wanting an antidepressant (heretofore referred to as an AD). It was also based on Doctor #2’s own preference of using alternate methods before going the full pharmaceutical route.

So now it was mid-June and I had hydroxyzine and melatonin at my disposal. Did they help? Well, the melatonin provided mild assistance with sleep for 2 or 3 days and then stopped having any noticeable effect. So that was a non-starter.

The hydroxyzine, which despite being mild Doctor #2 instructed me not to take before driving, marginally calmed my anxiety and gave me a “muted” kind of feeling. That was a welcome relief, albeit fairly mild, but it barely even brushed up against my underlying depression. Anxiety and depression have some overlap, but they are two different wolves that prey on your mind in two distinctly different ways. Not to mention that the “mute” function, in a sense, further exacerbated my already-unsettling inability to feel or enjoy anything.

I was still having an awful time falling asleep, staying asleep, and experiencing the natural effects of serotonin during the day. In short, I was still right back at square one. And I was starting to panic. After weeks of waiting for my first appointment (which was a bust), waiting for my second appointment (which was a bust of a lesser degree), and waiting on the effects of the hydroxyzine and the melatonin, I was bruised, burned out, and beaten down.

Instead of setting up yet another appointment with either doctor, I messaged Doctor #1 through the UPMC online portal and told him I was still struggling mightily. And I did something that I had stubbornly insisted to myself for years I wouldn’t do.

I asked him for an antidepressant.

When we had discussed ADs at our visit, I had insisted that if I ever took one I would want it to be something mild that I could get off when needed without detoxing. And he had recommended Lexapro (i.e. Escitalopram) both because it was a milder option and because it didn’t have some of the side effects associated with the Prozacs and Zolofts of the world.

So after I messaged Doctor #1, he wrote back quickly and said he was sending in a prescription for Lexapro. I was both nervous and relieved at this prospect, but my back was against the wall. I had tried doing the things that normally give me a natural serotonin boost (running, music, exploring nature with the kids) but they all fell flat, face down in the mud of my inertia and despair. And as a result of these efforts falling flat, I felt even flatter.

So I lunged for a life preserver. Even though I wasn’t sure that thing would be buoyant.

I have an image in my mind of the day when I first solidified that I would (seemingly) surrender some of my will to Big Pharma and go the AD route.

We were in the lovely little town of Boiling Springs on a beautiful day, watching ducks and swans at the lake with the kids. Which all sounds idyllic, but nothing feels remotely idyllic when you’re depressed. And for a reason I can’t recall, but had to do with poor planning on my part, that moment, with my kids next to me, was the one when I called to confirm my prescription.

Danielle and Violet ventured into a local restaurant to get some coffee. (It was for Danielle, not Violet, who is organically hyper-caffeinated by nature.) Meanwhile, Greyson played by the lake and I, of ravaged body and tortured mind, placed a phone call to UPMC and ended up talking to a woman for close to 15 minutes. I felt compelled to ask her, just person to desperate person, if she had any knowledge of Lexapro. And oddly enough, she told me that she herself had taken it in the past. Her impression of it was only positive (or at least that’s what she told my jittery self), and I nervously and needily interrogated her about the medication from multiple angles.

Part of the reason I remember this specific moment is because I vividly recall — on a fundamental, elemental human level — what an absolute burden I felt that I was in that moment.

Greyson was playing by the lake and wanting me to play with him. Wanting to talk to me. And I was stuck on this very poorly timed 15-minute phone call that was consuming all my emotional energy. Greyson was clamoring for my attention, which he fully deserved, and I was so lost in trying to find an off-ramp out of my depression that in that physical moment, in the shade of a tree and next to a lake, I had almost zero bandwidth for my sweet son. All I could handle was making sure he didn’t fall in the water. But I was totally absent from him emotionally as I sweated nervously, profusely and asked this woman on the phone about an AD that I was about to take, but which I wanted to be reassured would not somehow hollow me out and render me an even worse dad than I already felt I was.

It’s knowing that Greyson needed my attention that sticks in my head. Knowing that my depression had become, in that moment and in so many other moments last summer, an actual chasm between me and my children. The two most priceless treasures I have ever known, or will ever know. For 2 or 3 months, I couldn’t see their faces clearly, or hear their voices vividly. Because I was lost in the dark, wandering blind through the bat-infested caverns of my mind.

I forgive myself now, of course, for not paying enough attention to Greyson in that moment. And at the same time, there is nothing to forgive.

Because depression is not a moral deficiency. It’s a mental ailment.

And shame has no place at the table. Only empathy.

Warm empathy for others who are struggling. And warm empathy for yourself and your own struggle. Your current self and all of your past selves.

All of them deserve to be understood.

All of them deserve to be loved.

And all of them deserve to be at peace.

A Weekend for the Ages (that Managed to De-Age Me)

Ocean Lawn (North Shore, Massachusetts, New England, the U.S., planet Earth)

Picture, if you will, a one-decade-married couple strenuously quarantining for 18 months with their 2 small, sleep-dependent children. As a result of the quarantine, the parents: (1) haven’t ventured outside of a 70-mile radius of their home for one full year, and (2) haven’t taken a proper vacation in two full years; and as a result of the sleep dependence, they also (3) haven’t been away from both kids overnight since kid #2 was born three years ago, and (4) have not been alone for two consecutive nights in five full years (and maybe closer to six).

Now picture how it might feel for those two stir-crazy adult human beings to drop off their children and drive 7 hours to Massachusetts while listening to great music and enjoying uninterrupted adult conversation on a pristine September day, rock out to their favorite band for 2 perfect nights, eat some incredible food, meet some wonderful people, visit an idyllic bit of North Shore coastline, and then drive home while listening to more great music and enjoying more uninterrupted adult conversation on a somehow-even-more-pristine October day.

You might imagine that such a trip would be refreshing. And exhilarating. And re-human-izing.

You would, unsurprisingly, be quite correct.

There were a few things we didn’t know when we booked the tickets for this these concerts back in May. We didn’t know what the Covid situation would look like in late September. And we didn’t know for sure if Violet (2 at the time, 3 by the time of the concert), a mama’s girl to end all mama’s girls, would be able to sleep independently at Grandma’s house for a night, much less two nights in a row. But we booked the tickets in good faith that we would be able to wean her off co-sleeping. And in good faith that our favorite band and their chosen venue (in deeply Covid-conscious Massachusetts) would have every advisable pandemic protocol in place to keep all of us concertgoers safe.

In the end, our faith proved… good. And the result was a no-one’s-won-the-Powerball-in-months-sized jackpot of long-awaited respite (and rocking).

Below are some scattered snapshots of our epic weekend, presented for posterity. And also, perhaps, so that I can convince some lucky soul to check out Caspian — my favorite band, which also happens to be Danielle’s — for the first time.

I’ll start with the concert stuff, and then go on to the general weekend stuff.

  • I won’t bury the lede here. We met the band, you guys. We met the band! Well, we met 3 of the 6 of them. I had met those 3 (Phil and Jonny and Cal), plus a few former band members (Chris and Erin and Joe), in years past when I saw the band play in Denver (3x) and Philadelphia (2x). And every conversation I’ve had with any member of Caspian has been entirely memorable, and entirely unintimidating. These are the most accessible, unassuming guys you’ll ever meet in the rock world. I usually get awkwardly starstruck when I meet people I admire, but there’s no need to feel too struck by these guys. Because they don’t seem to see themselves as stars.
  • Caspian played two nights in a row, and both nights they hung out on the street outside the venue in the cool autumn air to shoot the breeze with their fans. Danielle and I talked to Phil (guitar #1) and Jonny (guitar #2), and I also talked briefly to Cal (guitar #3). All three guys are so down-to-earth that it felt like talking to old friends — or at least old acquaintances, if I’m inclined to show a little restraint — and they were visibly appreciative of the strong support of all their fans.
  • You know that thing guys often do that’s halfway between a hug and a handshake? I got one of those from Jonny! And I got a few hugs from Phil! Like I said: These guys make themselves accessible, and they are deeply grateful for their fans.
  • Then there was one of the high points of my existence so far on this earth. When the band introduced my favorite song, “Division Blues,” frontman Phil Jamieson said from stage, and I quote: “This one’s for Jeremy.” I have endlessly championed that song on Twitter and Facebook, since it’s a layered and deeply textured masterpiece that became my heart-bolstering anthem for the emotionally brutalizing Covid era. So as you might imagine, it was a truly dizzying honor to have Caspian value my love of their song so much that they gave me a shout-out. So dizzying, in fact, that I had to crouch down for a moment in the crowd to collect my bearings. That song is trippy, and that shout-out was a trip! Possibly the high point of our trip.
  • I met 3 fellow die-hard Caspian fans I had interacted with on a Facebook fan page for the band: Todd, Lauralee, and Doug. And all 3 of them were wonderfully warm, young-at-heart, good-humored, true-blue souls who I’m now honored to know personally. (Mike and Joe are my other two buddies from that page, and I can’t wait to meet them too.) It is a wild thing to have every single fellow Caspian fan I meet turn out to be a top-quality individual well worth knowing. It’s almost as if Caspian’s music is a force for good and for raging beauty in this world.
  • The venue, The Sinclair, was ideal. They followed multiple Covid protocols — vaccine mandates and mask mandates — to give all concertgoers a safe, fun experience during this ongoing Delta variant surge. And their layout was ideal: cozy but spacious enough, multiple tiered balconies, generous acoustics, and multiple accessible bar areas. (I opted for a local beer on night #1 and a non-local Pepsi on night #2, based on the vibe I was craving at each show.) There were 400-500 ticketholders each night, and both shows felt both packed and entirely unclaustrophobic. Nicely done, Sinclair. And nicely done, Massachusetts in general, which all weekend showed itself to be a place where a majority of people willingly wore masks indoors and didn’t seem to have their enjoyment of life remotely impeded by this fact. (Take note, Pennsylvania.)
  • On night #2, Circus Trees opened for Caspian. They are a trio of teenage sisters (18, 16, and 14) and they rocked hard. I was impressed by their songwriting chops, and I was also impressed by how supportive and absolutely un-condescending Caspian was in giving them a shout-out. They treated Circus Trees as the rock colleagues they were, not as teenagers for whom they were somehow doing a favor. Which made me love Caspian even more. They are un-ego-driven and egalitarian. They love deflecting attention to other bands, and to their fans as well. I endlessly dig their vibe. (But again, just to be clear: Circus Trees rocked, and they totally deserved the respect. It wasn’t charity.)

Okay, onto the weekend highlights that didn’t involve Caspian’s music…

  • I spent 58 straight hours with the sharpest, most scintillating, most erudite, most sharp-humored woman I know. A woman who would have fit in perfectly at nearby Harvard. And who, in theory at least, could have snagged a date with any guy she wanted there. I won’t go into more detail than to say that I felt lucky, because I am lucky, to have Danielle at my side during the whole weekend. (And how cool is it to be married to someone with an exactly equal interest in the NFL, The Office references, and Caspian? Pretty cool, right?) And now, on to non-Danielle matters — since she would likely say I’ve already said too much about her…
  • On Friday, as I happily recovered from the previous night’s headbanging workout, we did some Caspian-themed sightseeing. One of the band’s earliest songs is “Sea Lawn,” and it turns out it was named after an expansive, grassy spot on the North Shore (north of Boston) called Ocean Lawn, overlooking the mighty Atlantic. Danielle and I hiked across this vast, un-mowable lawn and along the rocky beach on an intoxicatingly pristine day. And I realized that inexplicably, due to some kind of massive oversight, we had never in 12 years together seen the Atlantic! So we ended that drought in the best possible way, and in the best possible place. The shoreline was gorgeous and contoured and incredibly peaceful, with (lucky us) not many fellow beachgoers on a Friday morning. It was just what our tired, pandemic-wearied souls needed.
  • We also drove through Beverly, Caspian’s hometown, to see what we could see. But our time was limited at that point, so we just stopped at a bookstore (and bought a cute kids’ book about RBG for Greyson and Violet). As is my custom, I enjoyed an animated conversation with the jovial woman who worked at the bookstore. From what we could tell, the town of Beverly had a 21st-century Mayberry vibe — but perhaps a bit more, shall we say, politically progressive. It made perfect sense that our sensitive, peace-loving, hard-rocking guys would hail from such a low-key, wide-awake New England enclave. Yet another reason to dig them.
  • We managed to track down some stellar food over the course of the weekend: On Thursday, top-shelf bagels from New Jersey and a vegan meatball pizza from Stoked (that ranked among my top 3 pizzas of all time)… on Friday, a bagel and a scone from a coffee shop and sumptuous vegetable korma from an Indian place called Nirvana… and on Saturday, both breakfast (biscuits & gravy and pancakes with caramelized banana butter) and a to-go lunch (a mouth-watering seitan-and-tofu club sandwich) from Veggie Galaxy, a paradise for herbivorous taste buds. We spent the equivalent of 3 months’ worth of our usual dining-out budget, and it was worth every penny. After all, it’s nice to treat oneself once in a while! (Especially when one has spent the lion’s share of a year and a half in one’s house.)
  • With the 8-9 hours we had available for sightseeing, we only managed to see Beverly and the Ocean Lawn. All the many great Boston and Cambridge recommendations we received from friends went un-visited. But life is long, and we are still quite young. What I can say about the area, though, is that I deeply savored briefly being in a college town where the population was vibrant and erudite (Harvard, anyone?) and progressive. Beyond the Covid-conscious stuff I’ve already mentioned, it was just wonderful to be surrounded by people who share many of our values, nearly all of whom also seemed like amiable souls. So… God bless Cambridge. I wish we could live there. But I’m guessing it’s pretty expensive. So maybe we’ll stay in Dillsburg for now.
  • As awake and exhilarated as I felt, I managed to avail myself of myriad conversational opportunities over the course of the weekend. A few guys at a gas station in New York, the aforementioned woman at the bookstore in Beverly, a guy at the parking garage in Cambridge, a bartender at Stoked while we waited for our pizza, the owner of Veggie Galaxy, the father of the three Circus Trees sisters (who ran their merch table), a few fellow residents of our Airbnb building while we stood outside during a false-alarm fire alarm. Life is just packed with chances to rub shoulders and swap notes (and smiles) with our fellow human beings. We just have to be awake enough to notice. Which is hard to do when the state of the world is as volatile as it currently is.

But that just makes it all the more meaningful when we are awake enough to pull it off.

And Caspian’s music is one of the preeminent things that awakens me.

So thanks, Caspian. Thanks for our hands-down best weekend in 2 years, and probably one of our top 10 in the last 10 years.

We owe you. But I know that you’re gracious enough to think that, as your die-hard fans, you somehow owe us.

So the feeling is warmly mutual. And I can dig that.

Long live Caspian.

And long live live music.