Sugar Water For My Dopamine-Depleted Brain, featuring George Saunders

The importance of dopamine became apparent in 1954 when the neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment that revealed the neurological processes behind craving and desire. By implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, the researchers blocked the release of dopamine. To the surprise of the scientists, the rats lost all will to live. They wouldn’t eat. they wouldn’t have sex. They didn’t crave anything. Within a few days the animals died of thirst.

In follow-up studies, other scientist also inhibited the dopamine-releasing parts of the brain, but this time, they squirted little droplets of sugar into the mouths of the dopamine-depleted rats. Their little rat faces lit up with pleasurable grins from the tasty substance. Even though dopamine was blocked, they liked the sugar just as much as before; they just didn’t want it anymore. The ability to experience pleasure remained, but without dopamine, desire died. And without desire, action stopped.

James Clear, Atomic Habits (p. 105)

Although I’m happily emerging from the slump, for much of this year to this point, I found myself relating to the rats described above, in that I had very little desire to do much of anything. Although this sounds like—and probably was—a classic depression symptom, I simultaneously observed that, like the rats, I didn’t feel particularly unhappy. I still enjoyed flowers and pretty scenery and conversations and food when—like sugar water getting dropped on the rats’ tongues—it was delivered to me with minimal effort on my part. Luckily, because I live with a man who is moved by his own appetites, much of the world is delivered to me: Marvel television programs appear on the screen, food arrives, I am ferried to various destinations. And as these things happened during this time, I thought mmmm, riding in the car in the sun is nice, this view is nice, this Modern Kale Ceasar Salad hits the spot.

The one arena where Paul could not do much for me was in my writing. With a kind of distanced concern, I observed that my sense of hope and ambition for my writing career had disappeared, and my desire to actually write had dwindled to almost nothing. This, more than anything else, highlighted for me the growing similarity between myself and the desire-less rats. I thought,

For most of my life I have cared about writing. While I don’t care right now, it seems probably that I will care again in the future so it makes sense that I should try to prolong my creative life until the caring kicks back in. To that end, maybe I should attempt to be not only the rats, but also play the role of scientists. (Not the scientists who let their rats die of starvation, but the ones who provided sugar water to keep the rats alive, albeit after cruelly disrupting their normal dopamine flow.)

In other words, I needed to procure my own source of sugar water.

I set about doing this by signing up for a session of the weekly writing workshop I sometimes do. It didn’t push me into writing pages as it normally would, but my sense of social obligation drove me to read other people’s work and give decent notes. There was some satisfaction in realizing that, after years of practice, seeking writing solutions when I read scripts is now as automatic as starting to chew after I’ve put food in my mouth. So I think my fellow writers benefitted and I exercised my brain a little. But after a couple of months, I was worn out even by this. I needed sugar water that required zero response.

Normally I keep a running list of the “content” I am watching and listening to, but I also didn’t care enough to do that. Much of what I was consumed was apparently not memorable, but I’ll mention a couple that were:

On Apple TV, there was Severance. Rather than attempt to say much about it, I’ll just recommend it, or recommend reading the second half of this essay in Electric Literature. (Or, like me, you could read the entire essay and then order the book that it talks about in the first half.)

On audio, there was the George Saunders’ book, A Fish in a Pond in the Rain.

In the first weeks after my surgery, my general I-can’t-make-myself-care mood persisted, mixed with a fair amount of physical pain.

“Are you okay?” asked our most curious neighbor, with some actual concern.

I was not great. I had little energy or desire to have back-and-forth conversations or observe the social niceties of stretching my face into different expressions. But as I slowly shuffled around the block like a battery-finally-depleted energizer bunny, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was pure sugar water piped into my brain via my ears. Inside my head, and even inside my soul, “my little rat face lit up with pleasure.”

Although the book can be described as about writing, Saunders also weaves some discussion of morality, spirituality, human nature and the general poignant ridiculousness of people.

Saunders, like my husband, is an engineer-turned-writer, and it is interesting to observe the ways in which their minds think alike. Saunders elevates this by also being well-read and dedicated to efficiently and affectingly articulating his thoughts that are shaped by years of consideration and teaching.

In each section an actor reads a story by a Russian author you’ve heard of, and then Saunders analyzes each story, beat by beat, page by page, doing both a close reading,” and a larger structural analysis.

If you are a writer, a reader or a lover of stories, I highly recommend this book.

P.S. Though I’m a fan of George Saunders’ fiction, I became aware of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain via his Story Club newsletter which you can check out on SUBSTACK for free. I will admit to being months behind — apparently opening emails and reading things on my computer is less like sugar-water delivery and more akin to having to cross one’s cage for sustenance, and I’m not all the way there yet. The minute he compiles his posts into an audiobook or podcast, I will be the first to lay my money down.

Introducing ATOMIC HABITS

Quick health update: I’m almost six weeks out from my surgery and feeling much better. Some aches and pains will work themselves out for a few months and deep healing is a process, but, as of now, no more daily needles in my belly, the glue is slowly peeling off the wounds, and I wake in the morning with more energy…

So… cool! I guess that means I can get back to what I was doing I when I got distracted, like…. six months ago? What was I doing again?

Oh, right, planning my best life ever in 2022! 😹

As 2021 came to a close, I decided to build the new year around two books: Joy at Work, co-authored by Marie Kondo, and Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear. My plan was to pre-read these books before the end of 2021, then, in the new year, to go back through them in a more active way, using the advice and doing the exercises until I emerged anew— organized, in control, productive and operating at maximum satisfaction.

Of course, I understood that reconfiguring a lifetime of not-great habits wouldn’t be quick. It might take all year! Though, secretly, I hoped for less. Maybe I would achieve my optimal life in half that time—like by June, or even May!

Hahahahahahaha.

God

Consider this a prequel to some upcoming posts wherein I will reference Atomic Habits in the context of ruminating about life and purpose.

Writing Update: August/September/October

WRITING

My top three projects for August/September/October (as measured in hours devoted) were:  

A VERY PEARTREE CHRISTMAS – horror rom-com spec feature (with Paul Seetachitt) 
Christmas-resistant journalist is sent to the town of PearTree to cover their annual Twelve Days of Christmas Festival only to discover that a series of  gruesome “accidents” occurring during the festivities are actually ritualistic murders, orchestrated to resurrect the demon, Krampus.
Paul Seetachitt and I pushed to get it ready for pre-holiday reading. Available now!

THE INFLUENCER (suspense-horror spec feature)
When the manager / best friend of a struggling social media influencer cuts a deal for her client to beta-test some new tech in order to get more followers, the results are more than she bargained for. 
Did some rewriting in September and submitted. Readers (i.e. my reps) have come back with an intriguing idea… should it be a TV series instead?! Hmmmm. Stay tuned to hear how this one turns out.

GIRL, WOLF, WOODSMAN (short fiction)
A contemporary re-imagining of “Little Red Riding Hood” that details what happens after the woodsman heroically dispenses with that pesky wolf. 
Found this one in the archives and decided to finish it at long last. Did a round of submissions to literary journals — we’ll see if it finds a home.  There’s also a short screenplay version waiting in the wings.  

WATCHING

MOVIES: The Green Knight, Free Guy, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Card Counter, Americanish, Natalie, The Tomorrow War, Malignant, No Time to Die, Last Night in Soho, Eternals

TV: Dave, Ted Lasso, Mare of Easttown, The Boys, We Are Lady Parts, The Other Two (pilot); The Chair, Foundation, Squid Game, We Are Here, Great British Bake Off

READING

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguru; Anxious People, Fredrik Backman; Women in White Coats; Olivia Campbell, Gone, Lisa Gardner; An Ordinary Wonder, Buki Papillon; Afterlives, Thomas Pierce; Elevation, Stephen King; The Woman in the Window, A.J. Finn; Best of Tor.com 2020; Heroine with 1001 Faces, Maria Tatar  Heroine with 1001 Faces, Maria Tatar 

LISTENING

New category! I’ve discovered and am really getting into scripted podcast series. Like radio plays of old… or TV for your ears…

Wolverine, The Long Night (Marvel), Moonface, Blood Ties, True Love, Bridgewater, Aftershock

APPRECIATING

Boundaries crossed after seeming millennia:

A TV agent (Auri Maruri at Gersh), and my first official TV credit (Creepshow, Season 3, Episode 5: “Time Out.”)

Eight Things I’ve Been Doing in the Last Six Weeks

It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday in April and this blog is officially neglected. The problem with neglecting something — like your student loans or cleaning the kitchen junk drawer— is that the longer you leave it, the more daunting it feels to come back to it, which makes it take even longer – so when you do, the loan interest has grown into a house-sized demon and inside the kitchen drawer all the ketchup packets have become tinged brown and stuck together with leaking soy sauce.

(Fun fact: Due to the pandemic there is a nationwide shortage of ketchup packets. Heinz has promised to increase production to make up for the 12-billion packet shortfall. Little do they know they could have just asked us for the contents of our kitchen drawer.)

So it is with maintaining a record of one’s life on a blog — there’s too much to catch up on. But I’m gonna try to hit some highlights:

  1. Getting Vaccinated! Just the first shot so far. It’s Moderna. I went to a drive-thru site at Dodger Stadium. I get my second one in a couple more weeks! Here is a rather boring one-minute video of that:

2) Learning to use TikTok. I could have simply embedded a video above, but I wanted to give you an example of item #2, which is that I’m learning how to use TikTok. It’s for my own curiosity, and also research for a screenplay that I’ve started where social media plays a large role. I have mixed feelings about TikTok-ing, as it is interesting to me in theory, but I only have about a six minute scroll tolerance before I feel like my brain is going to bleed! I’ve learned that TikToks can be as long as 60 seconds, and also that 60 seconds feels MUCH longer that it sounds. For instance, the above video is 58 seconds, and it basically feels like eternity. I need to add “editing” to my repertoire.

3)Starting a new screenplay. I’ve been delaying for a long time — I’ve been working on other things — like work for clients, short stories, polishing older work — all good causes, but it was still getting to the point where I was beginning to worry if I could still write a feature from scratch. To put and keep this project at the top of my priority list, I joined not one, but TWO writing groups where I have to turn in pages, and it’s feeling good to push through it.

4) Winning a contest. My short story, “Shell,” which I’ve noted in previous posts was a semi-finalist and a finalist, did go on to win the Grand Prize in the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story Writing Competition. I won some money, and the folks at Screencraft have been really nice, talking to me about my career goals and even introducing me to a showrunner who was one of their judges. (For anyone reading this in the future, you can this story, as well as 29 other horror stories by women writers in The One That Got Away: Women of Horror Volume 3.

(Fun Fact: The One That Got Away was ordered for an English class at Butler University, and so seems like it will be discussed by students in a college class, which I find exciting! Also, Butler is located in Indianapolis, very close to my home town, and my sister and several friends attended back in the day.)

5) Meeting with my first showrunner! In all my years of trying to get established as a writer, I have been fortunate to meet with a number of executives at companies, but never with a showrunner, which has been a source of some frustration. Executives are awesome in that they offer to develop a pitch or a project with you — however that development, though fun and exciting, is seldom paid. Executives generally can’t hire you to work on an established TV show. The person who can do that is a showrunner. I have dreamed of working on a show — but my chances of that are slim without ever meeting someone who might potentially, hire me on one! So, even though this particular showrunner isn’t currently running a show, it was still a momentous benchmark, and he was super complimentary of my story, which was edifying.

6) Celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary. Worthy of note, though it was a very normal day. At this point in time, I think most of us cherish normal days! As usual, Paul and I both worked from home at opposite sides of the apartment. I bought him (i.e. “us”) some new cutting boards and a cake carrier, and he gave me permission to use him as my TikTok test subject — he’s definitely hoping that would never come to pass, but I vow it’s going to! In the evening, we finished Season One of Ted Lasso, which is just as freaking heartwarming as everybody annoyingly kept saying it was. Maybe even up there with Schitt’s Creek. If you haven’t seen it, go ahead and get the one-week free trial of Apple+ and binge it, then come back and thank me.

7) Adding yoga back into my life. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been pretty faithful about going for daily walks, but largely gave up the diligent yoga practice I had maintained for over a a decade. I’ve known it was a loss, but just hadn’t figured out how to work it back in to my routine until my friend, Gina, sent me a link to this Morning Yoga Challenge: 10 min of Morning Yoga for 30 DAYS. For me, it was perfect — bite-sized morsels that didn’t seem too time consuming or painful. Each episode also has an affirmation to carry through the day.

8) Reading some great books. One of these was Kindred, by Octavia Butler. A continuation of my informal Octavia Butler project that began in December of 2019 when I read Parable of the Sower. In the last month or so I’ve also read (listened to) Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, and The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. The book that really blew me away though, was Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur. If you know only a little about her, it might be how she was chained to her bed in the hospital after being accused of killing a police officer on a New Jersey turnpike in the 70s, and it might seem like dark reading. It was not — this woman is full of light and gratitude and wisdom. Honest about her own blindspots and awakening, educational about the great numbers of sneaky and unjust things that happen in our country and elsewhere. At the same time, she manages to be flat out entertaining. The chapters alternate between her time after she was arrested and imprisoned and her life up to that point, beginning in early childhood.

I’m sure there are a couple things I’m missing — but eight is a good number. Hope everyone is enjoying their spring!

BLACK LIVES MATTER

On May 25, a black man named George Floyd was detained by police. They laid him on the ground on his stomach, and one of the officers put his knee on his neck for over eight minutes. Mr. Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. The people around them pleaded for the officer to move. He did not. Mr. Floyd died. On the morning of May 26, I saw the news story shared on Twitter. I didn’t know the person who had shared it, the story it seemed too extreme to be real. I checked the publication, then Googled to see if other sources confirmed the story. They did.

The realization was like a jolt of electricity going through me. On top of the report about the killing of jogger, Ahmaud Abery, only a week before, on top of Eric Garner, who had also said he couldn’t breathe. On top all the others on the list that keeps getting longer. My eyes watered. My chest felt tight. Each of the other times I had felt… but this time felt different. After the fact now — in the wake of the outcry and the protests, I know this visceral reaction, the feeling of electricity — was shared. So often I feel witness to as opposed to part of, but in this case I was part of, without knowing, a pervasive a reaction that people felt, that would lead to protests across the country.

At this point, however, the world still seemed quiet. It was morning. No one else on my feed had mentioned the story. I hit “retweet,” knowing the news needed to be shared, but stopped short when it came to figuring out what I should say, what I could say — about this.

Any version of Beyond belief or This can’t be happening seemed specious when Black people in America live with the reality every day. Any version of horrible or awful, felt insufficient, like those of a distant speculator not that affected (which, it could be argued, I was). But to scream — to express the rage I was feeling — seemed performative, like the casual acquaintance who shows up at a funeral and cries on the shoulder of the widow. If I wanted to scream, how must Black people in America feel? Still, I knew it needed to be said, in some way, that I see this and this is wrong.

In the end, I posted whatever I posted, which in the scheme of things is unimportant as I have no Twitter engagement and soon enough social media exploded with many people who had more better things to say.

But, along with following the biggest issues at hand — those of police violence and systemic racism — I couldn’t help tracing, across the various platforms I follow — a hopping conversational thread where the voices in the world echoed the conversations inside my head. Calling out those who remain silent and are thus complicit, those who join in without understanding for cluttering the airwaves, those who hijack conversations and explain when explanations are not needed.

In general, I am probably guiltiest of the first, of silence — perhaps because I am scared of being tone-deaf, of making a mistake, of getting “yelled” at. This is not an unusual response for a white woman, and it certainly describes me. There is also the fact that when surrounded by many voices– regardless of topic and regardless of venue– I tend to “go quiet.” That feels like a sorry excuse in this case and I know it. I see the privilege and frivolity in taking this moment to claim that HSPism and introversion make it almost impossible for me to do otherwise. Am I saying I’m not white fragile I’m just fragile and hoping that makes it better?

And yet, there is part of me that resists eating this narrative whole. After struggling for much of my life to overcome the outward presentation of my interior qualities, I am learning to assert — at least to myself — that I believe those interior qualities have value. Going quiet means I am listening, that I am processing, and that eventually I will react. Granted, when it comes to injustice, there is such a thing as reacting too late… but the sad truth is that the world is so rampant with unfairnesses that a slow reaction for one event might be ready just in time for another.

Quick, reflexive soundbites are not my strong suit. But I hope my tendency to gather what to some seems an overabundance of information also can have value. My years of study are what I mine when I help other people tell their stories that are different from my own. I’ve seen my ability, in that context, to dive deep, to analyze and empathize, to provide a sounding board and suggest a framework, that I know that is a contribution too.

I am still going back and reading and watching the various articles and media posted over the last two weeks. And of course –no surprise — I’ve joined a book group that I’m very excited about — with a year-long reading list ranging from Souls of Black Folk, from the early 1900s, to White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-racist.

BLACK LIVES MATTER. This has never been a question for me. The questions, that I have asked before but now arise anew, lie in how that belief should impact how I move through the world and how I relate to others.