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.

Argentina (Part 2) – Birthday in Bahia Blanca

BIRTHDAY TRIP TO BAHIA BLANCA

Once A and I arrived in Buenos Aires, we needed to get to my ASR “magical birthday spot,” Bahia Blanca, a small city south of Buenos Aires. It takes about eight-hours to travel to Bahia Blanca by car, or just over an hour by plane. We chose the plane. Planes from the smaller local airport in Buenos Aires to Bahia Blanca depart twice a day— in the morning and in the afternoon. Bahia Blanca is the kind of place, where, when you tell Argentinians you need to go there, they look at you perplexed, and ask “Why?” We only had a week in Argentina, and since I really only needed to be in Bahia Blanca at 1:29pm (local time) on my birthday, I considered flying in the morning, hanging out in the airport, and returning in the afternoon. But this plan contained some risk: If anything went wrong with the morning flight, there wouldn’t be any other options and I would have traveled all the way to Argentina only to fail in my mission! In the end, we decided to play it safe and take an afternoon flight on the previous day to make double-sure I was in the right place at the right time.

Upon arriving in Bahia Blanca, we took a cab from the airport into town and found it about as it had been described to us, which is to say, very average. If I was to pick an Argentinian version of the town I grew up in, it might be this. Probably a pretty nice place to go to work, have a family, pay rent, go to the grocery story… but not exactly a cultural or aesthetic mecca. Which was not really a disappointment. We were still dealing with jet-lag and happy enough not to feel obligated to rush to any famous museums, etc.

We did, however, accomplish a rite of passage for Argentina, in that we found a place that would exchange our money at the “blue market rate.” The blue market rate is almost double the official exchange rate. Swapping bills at this rate is not illegal, but not exactly legal either, so you need to find a partner and a place either by going to someplace like the reputed exchange hotspot of Calle Florida back in Buenos Aires, or by “asking around,” and finding someone trustworthy. After a couple of misses, we lucked out asking a staffer at our hotel. It probably didn’t hurt that A_ tipped him generously in American cash when he helped with our bags.  He gave us the address of a small shop whose primary business was something other than a money exchange. Discreetly counting out our bills at the counter felt, as A_, put it, “a little shady,” but it was safer and nicer than Calle Florida would have been, and much less time-consuming. It felt like a victory as it helped me stretch my travel funds for the rest of the trip!

The next day was my birthday, and also “Immaculate Conception Day” or “Day of the Virgin.” I’d read about this before our trip and and had wondered if the day might be occasion for a festival or a parade or something. I can say that, at least in Bahia Blanca, it is not. As we were exchanging our money the previous day, I’d asked the shop-owner what happened on this holiday and she described it as a day where, if you are religious, you can go to church, or you stay home or hang out with family. Nobody goes to work and pretty much all businesses are closed. Kind of like Christmas Day without the decorations. A_ and I enjoyed the fact that we had our hotel to ourselves, went to the little hotel gym, and used the time to figure some travel plans that were changing.

By the magical hour of 1:29pm, we were back at the airport, preparing to board our plane. I felt a little worldlier and wealthier. I wasn’t sure if I felt immediately luckier, but, but that’s mostly a matter of mindset, so I decided I did!

A reader has asked for some pictures. It’s hard to convey how badly I failed as a photographer on this trip, but these will start to give you some idea!

View from our hotel window
Our waiting plane at the Bahia Blanca Airport
Me and A_ at the airport at the magical moment of 1:29pm on my birthday.

 

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.”)

Time Out! (Our Creepshow Episode)

Last fall, Paul and I got to write a segment for CREEPSHOW on AMC’s Shudder.

We knew the Season 3 was happening, but didn’t know exactly when our segment would air, so it was fun when Paul walked in and read me an excerpt from a review at BloodyDisgusting.com. Yes—we were Episode 5, which dropped today!

Barrington Smith and Paul Seetachitt’s story is a wistful one. There are no tangible monsters here, nor is there a character covering up a misdeed. The misguided Tim simply wants to honor his father, whose own time was cut short. This tale is not hard to connect to on an emotional level; everyone knows someone who worked themselves to death and was consequently deprived of life’s joys. “Time Out” is simple and direct, but it is also incredibly effective

Kind words. BloodyDisgusting.com gave us four skulls, which is the highest rating of any of the episodes so far in the season.

HorrorObsessive.com also did a recap that was less effusive but still complimented the writing.

For those unfamiliar, Creepshow is an anthology series — kind of like Twilight Zone — but with a horror bent. Each episode is divided into two stories. Our story “Time Out,” got paired up with “The Things In Oakwood’s Past” which was cool segment because it was their first foray into animated story-telling and because it featured Mark Hamill, who not everyone realizes is gifted voice actor for animation. My first L.A. job way back in the day was on a live action video game called Wing Commander IV, and Mark Hamill was in the cast. At that time, he was collecting some kind of toys that came in McDonald’s Happy Meals, and because he couldn’t leave the set, I got to bring him a Happy Meal with a toy on a couple of occasions, and he was always incredible friendly and nice!

So this was exciting because it is our first actual produced TV credit! They say you are supposed to celebrate your victories, so I had imagined inviting a few people over, serving some snacks, etc., but the reality is that Paul and I just watched it with our housemate. It was still fun.

And lest anyone think my life is now too glamorous, the other big “happening” at our house is that I have a colonoscopy tomorrow morning, and I just started doing the prep. 🙄

My Name in The Hollywood Reporter

Today I saw that The Hollywood Reporter published this article last week.

The article is mostly about another project at Jumpcut, the studio that has optioned a pilot I wrote called Jack 9, but Jack 9 is mentioned here in the subheading…

And later in the article, I am named in conjunction with the project.

To amend a few details, my name has an additional “t” at the end, the project did NOT go through the Jumpcut incubator and I’m not sure that Freedom Road is still involved… but still, it’s fun to see one’s project in print.