Back at it – and where I’ve been

I worked at the grocery store today.  I work there again tomorrow.  Tomorrow night I’m committed to Tae Kwon Do.  Friday morning I leave for Louisville, KY for the weekend to see my son, daughter-in-law and grandbaby.  Tonight I skipped my beloved depression and bipolar support group in order to write.  This is my one window in the next several days where I can get some writing done and by God I’m going to write.  I’ve not written on this blog for 11 days and I’m half-desperate to get something written.

I’ve got about five topics queued up, some of which would be short and sweet – but it feels required that I first write about what has been going on while I’ve been offline.  People may be assuming – or at least concerned – that I am super-super depressed, which I’ve not been.  My not writing, however, does involve my mental illness, and I feel a little vulnerable writing about it.  It also has to do with medication, which really makes it sound like mental illness – which it is.

I have been depressed for the last two weeks, but not as depressed as I have frequently been during my depressed cycles over the last many years – and this may well have to do with my new medication.  I changed medication around eight weeks ago, weaning myself off of two drugs (Saphris and Seroquel) and adding in Zyprexa.  My shrink – whom after about two years I like and respect – said he felt optimistic that this might ground me better than the meds I am coming off of.

It was a kind of a funny business, getting started on this drug.  At my regular 3-month meeting with him, I said “My friend Toni says she is taking Zyprexa and Prozac for her bipolar disorder and this combination is really helping her.  I parroted to her”, I told him, “what you and previous shrinks have taught me – that anti-depressants are dangerous to bipolar people, can spike dangerous manias.  But she reported that her shrink says that this particular combination really works well for people, and that he’s having a lot of success with people who didn’t respond so well to previous meds.”

My shrink did not surprise me when he said, “No way I’m going to put you on Prozac when you are cycling as much as you have been.  But Zyprexa – hmm. That’s actually a pretty good idea.  Let’s try that.  If we reach a point when you are level – not cycling up and down – and depressed, we could talk about Prozac, but not when you are going up and down this much.”

This 2014 movie was tanked by the critics.  I have not been impressed by the impact of meds on my bipolar disorder.  Is Zyprexa a hopeful addition?  Maybe if I add Prozac?  Should I rather be aiming to get off of meds altogether?  I don't know.

This 2014 movie was tanked by the critics. I have not been impressed by the impact of meds on my bipolar disorder. Is Zyprexa a hopeful addition? Maybe if I add Prozac? Should I rather be aiming to get off of meds altogether? I don’t know.

So Zyprexa maybe is helping. My last round of ups was not as up, and this round of downs is not as down.  But it’s been messing with my writing even more.  Every time I sit down to write, I doze off.  This has been happening for a week and a half now.  Drowsiness is a common side-effect with psych meds – including this one – but not one that I have ever experienced with meds before.

So if drowsiness has kept me from writing for almost about 11 days, how is it that I am writing tonight?  Am I starting to cycle up again?  Maybe – time will tell.  Maybe my desperation to get back to writing – and to offer stuff to you my readers – is bigger than the drowsiness.

This has been a long down – longer than the two weeks that has for many months been my typical cycle.  It has now been maybe 2 1/2 weeks.  If it goes on a long time, it might not seem like such a good deal.  If it continues to mess with my writing, it might not be such a good deal.  At work – on my feet with a rapid pace of transactions – it doesn’t make me drowsy, but I think it makes me stupid.  Depression makes me stupid – actually about as much – but when I’m up I’m pretty sharp.  If I start being low-level depressed – and drowsy and stupid – more of the time than the half-time that has been typical, it might not feel like such a good deal.

We’ll see.


“You’re not going away unhappy…”

“I’m not going to let you go away a less-than-satisfied customer.”  That’s been the stance with me of James at the Frugal Backpacker.  And he has twice now rescued me from being an unhappy customer, to where I am now very happy – and a big cheerleader for their store, right next door to my store.  And I do like to chat – and will certainly tell lots of people, admirers of the new winter coat I bought from James and customers in my checkout line, about how much I like James and his store.

James and I got off to a great start with each other.  I don’t remember how I found out that he worked at the outdoors outfitter next door.  But I vented with him.  “I am so much needing a really warm winter coat – an industrial strength winter coat.  I hate winter and I’m really suffering.  My current winter coat was old when I got it at the resale shop four years ago and has never been warm enough.  Now the zipper is broken and takes forever to get it to work – and it’s not worth the expense to replace it.  It’s january 8 – have I missed all the good post-Christmas sales?”

James has shown world-class customer service chops since I first met him.  Not just a good businessman, but the kind of guy I'd like as a friend.  Starting next week he'll be in the store on Thursdays only - but Becca is also great, and Emily.

James has shown world-class customer service chops since I first met him. Not just a good businessman, but the kind of guy I’d like as a friend. Starting next week he’ll be in the store on Thursdays only – but Becca is also great, and Emily.

“On the contrary, you are right on time.  Our sale on winter coats starts tomorrow – 40% off.  Come by and I’ll hook you up.  We open at 10.”

“Great.  I’m not working tomorrow – I’ll be there at 10.”

The next day at 10:15 there were already a lot of shoppers in the Frugal Backpacker.  I don’t know how they had advertised – probably not just word-of-mouth –  but the word had gotten out.  James gave me a big warm greeting, made points by remembering my name, and immediately made himself my personal shopping assistant.

I kept feeling like I was being a very demanding customer because one jacket after another seemed to me not warm enough.  I wanted industrial strength warmth.  But the truth is that from start to finish I didn’t spend a lot of time picking out a jacket.  And, in that moment that I found the right one, I loved it.  I thought it was probably warm enough – and it was a beautiful blue color.  It was a good brand, one that radiated quality.  A brand new winter coat, after years of resale coats!  And, let’s just say it, I was manic.  Reality on steroids.  What might seem nice another time seemed awesome, fabulous with that manic chemistry flowing through my veins.  James was happy, I was happy, life seemed happy.

When I saw James three weeks later, back in my checkout line, he was clearly happy to see me and very brightly asked how I was doing with the new jacket.  I practically hung my head.  “It’s not warm enough.”  It had taken me a couple of weeks to decide this.  Those first two weeks I was manic and warm.  I don’t know if it’s anywhere in the clinical research that people are warm when they are manic and cold when they are depressed, but it makes good sense to me and certainly fits with my experience.

So now I was depressed, cold, feeling like I had mismanaged the whole situation, discouraged about the chances of setting it right three weeks after making my purchase – genuinely ashamed of myself.  James brightened right up.  “We’ve got to fix this!  We can’t leave you unhappy.”

“I don’t have my receipt.”  My personal organization is genuinely chaotic and I have a hard time holding on to receipts.  (About an hour ago I pulled out an envelope, labeled it “receipts” and deposited in it a receipt from today.  I really do mean it that I intend – no matter what voice says I can’t – to bring some order to my life.)

So I went back to the store the next day and this time James found me a genuinely industrial strength parka – not as pretty as the previous jacket, kind of industrial strength looking, but as much goose down as any jacket they carry and a strong windproof exterior.  The 40% off sale was well over, but James gave me that discount.  I went out of the store once again a happy customer.

People think I'm dressed for the Arctic in this coat.  I feel good that I've done everything possible to stay warm, even though I'm not.

People think I’m dressed for the Arctic in this coat. I feel good that I’ve done everything possible to stay warm, even though I’m not.

I returned to the store today, three weeks later, once again feeling like a failure.  The jacket is definitely warmer than the last two, but still not warm enough for me.  I have basically given up on finding a jacket that will keep me warm – and blame myself for being so bloody cold-blooded.  I have really kind of resigned myself to that limitation; what brought me into the store today was that all the buttons were falling off the jacket.  “They really ought to do something to make good for that”, I thought.

James was once again clearly happy to see me – exactly the way i would most love a shopkeeper to greet me.  Knows me, remembers my name, happy to see me – and wants me to be a happy customer.  And, in this instance, ready to let me get to know him as a person.  Very shortly into our conversation he shared his good news.  “I’m going part-time, one day a week, so I can stay home with our nine-week-old baby.” He was radiant.

“Awesome – congratulations.  Does this mean you will have to give up your job as the store manager?”

“I’ve never been the store manager – I’m a sales associate.”

“But you take so much personal ownership for the store and its products.  You’ve gone way out of your way to make sure I’ve been happy, including maybe bending policy by giving me 40% off when the sale was over.  You didn’t consult with any manager, you just empowered yourself to do it.  How did you learn such great customer service chops?” (I didn’t say, “and so young”, but I thought it – ageist that I am.)

“My dad ran a hardware store for 30 years – I picked a lot of it up from him.”

Then I gave him my bad news about the buttons.  He was clearly shocked at the sight of my buttonless coat.  “That’s terrible – I’ve never seen anything like that.  We’ve got to do something about this.  Let me see what we can do.”  This time I think he did go consult with a manager, the lovely Becca whom I would meet a few minutes later.

He came back and said, “Woolrich has a warranty on the jacket, but you’ll have to call them to work that out.  From our end, to try to make up for your inconvenience, we’re going to resell you the jacket not at 40% off, but 65% off.”  I brightened right up.  By the time he finished his calculations, I was buying the jacket not for its original retail $170 nor for the $107 I had paid for it three weeks before, but $67.  I said, “I honestly don’t completely love this jacket, but at $67 I love it and am a satisfied customer.”

Becca then came out and introduced herself.  I told them both about my blog and about how some of my posts get kind of psychological because I have a background of being a psychologist.  “James said Becca’s a doctor – she teaches courses at UNCA” (University of North Carolina Asheville).  Turns out she has a doctorate in environmental science and is a classic destination Ashevillain – she and her husband moved to this job-challenged town for the life style and are cobbling together jobs to make ends meet.  It felt good to know that I’m not the only front line customer service worker in this plaza to have a Ph.D.

Becca was smart and charming - a classic Asheville overqualified front line customer server.

Becca was smart and charming – a classic Asheville overqualified front line customer server.

This incited me to probe a little deeper into James.  “Us cashiers are such interesting people.  What else do you do besides working in the outdoor store?”

“Well, I’m an audio engineer.  I have worked with various bands, but these days I’m reining in all the traveling and I do audio work with Biltmore Baptist Church.”

“I knew it – an artist.”

Before I left, I got James’s email address so I can send him my favorite book on stay-at-home dads – From Deadlines To Diapers, written by my friend Mike Perricone during a period when he was a therapy client of mine and left his job as the hockey reporter for the Chicago Sun Times to stay home with little Jenny.

Oh, and before I left, Becca introduced me to her cute and very sweet and friendly dog Pepper, the store mascot.

Not  a great shot of Pepper - she's way cuter than this shows, and as friendly as James and Becca.

Not a great shot of Pepper – she’s way cuter than this shows, and as friendly as James and Becca.

Asheville is a very dog-friendly town and it is common for people to bring their dogs to work.  Jubilee, where I go to church, will have several dogs in the room on any given Sunday.

I left there feeling redeemed as a consumer – and proud to be doing customer service for a living.



Mike the barrista/cashier/pianist

Extraordinary cashiers and other customer service people are everywhere.  Musicians or other artists, writers, master gardeners, creative parents – they find all manner of creative outlet.

I’m at the City Bakery on Biltmore Ave., waiting for my car to be done at Toney’s Car and Truck, my current favorite mechanic who got three votes on my recent informal Facebook poll of local mechanics.  What I brought to them today was not heavy-duty mechanical challenges for them, but maybe challenges nonetheless.  My dome light burned out and I absolutely cannot see a way to get at it.  People tell me there will certainly be a step-by-step video on YouTube about how to do this, but I not only am not handy but I have a real block around stuff like this.  Someday maybe my personal growth will move in this direction, but right now I’m happy to pay for stuff like this – and celebrate that I do have enough little financial cushion to pay for it.  Now when the transmission goes out I’m gonna look it up on YouTube.

Pretty much everywhere I go, I’m telling cashiers about this blog and, when I get the chance, interviewing them about their work and lives – and hearing so much great stuff.  Here at City Bakery, Mike just took care of me.  He gave me great service: my coffee routine includes that when I put all my half-and-half in my coffee it becomes not hot enough for me, so I ask baristas to either microwave it for me after I have doctored it up or, if they have no microwave, to steam some cream for me – the latter of which Mike did for me very cheerfully.  Great service, good tip and good feelings all around.  I tend to tip cashiers, restaurant servers, etc. well.  Hey, we do hard work – largely unrecognized or misunderstood by people who think it’s easy or mindless – and for shit wages.

I have come to expect that people who make their living doing front line customer service also have some artistic outlet.  Maybe it's more so in Asheville, I dunno.  Mike is a pianist and composer.  I'm gonna check out his music on YouTube.

I have come to expect that people who make their living doing front line customer service also have some artistic outlet. Maybe it’s more so in Asheville, I dunno. Mike is a pianist and composer. I’m gonna check out his music on YouTube.

So I told Mike about the blog. (“I’m a cashier too, at x grocery store – and I’m also a writer.  I write this blog about cashiering, which is also about customer service more generally – but it’s also about bipolar disorder, which I’ve got, and about mindfulness and human relations and Tae Kwon Do and lots of other stuff.”)  Mike did what most cashiers do when I give them this spiel – he got excited, as did his coworker Joe, who was listening in from behind.  “Hey, sounds like fun – I’m definitely going to check it out.”  I think they always mean that when they say it, even if they don’t always end up doing it.

Then, because Mike was steaming my half-and-half and there was no line, we got a couple of minutes to talk.  Mike said, “You gave me your card – I’ve got one too.”  As he struggled a bit to pull his card out of his wallet (sometimes my cards don’t always ease their way out of my wallet), I noticed that his left hand and arm were dramatically misshapen.  His card read: “Mike Anderson – pianist”.  There was a really nice open vibe between us – I was liking him a lot – so I made bold to ask him about the arm.

“How does it work for you playing the piano with that arm?”  Mike did not blink, acted not at all surprised or put out by my directness.

“I hold my arm at this angle.  I mostly improvise, so I don’t use these fingers very much and it works out fine overall.”

“How did it happen?”

“I was in my 20’s, driving too sleepy, fell asleep and went under a semi.”

“You’re lucky to still be alive.”

“Big time.”  Charming, warm, friendly, smart – physically wounded but personally very intact.

“Could I write a post about you?”  “Sure.”

“Can I use your name?”  “Yeah.”  “Maybe I’ll include your contact info – you might get some business.” “Great.”

“Can I get a photo?” “Sure.”  “Can I include your bad arm in the photo?”  “Let’s not. I don’t want it to be shtick about the handicapped guy or for sympathy or anything like that.”  Got it.

So here he is: Mike Andersen.  Cashier, barista, pianist, composer – cool guy.  Yes a barista – and good at it.  But so much more.  Patronize him at City Bakery and get great, warm, real service.  Book him for an event.

Mike Andersen: (850) 481-5596,,

Life…and more life

The husband of one of my coworkers (let’s call her Sally) died a couple of weeks ago.  It was not exactly sudden, but greatly unexpected.  He just developed one medical complication after another for about three weeks, until finally the doctors told them he had a week to live.

Sally is much beloved in our department and throughout the store. One person used the term “angelic” to describe her.  It’s a word I would be slow to use to describe a mortal, but she is so consistently sweet and warm and positive that it really kind of fits.

I was greatly honored when she asked me if I had a poem about death that I could offer at her husband’s memorial – and told her that in fact I do have one.  I felt good about going to the memorial service last night.  There were several other workers from our store, a couple previous workers who have moved to jobs at another grocery store, and several customers who have over the years gotten fond of Sally.  These are the kinds of situations that poke through the distance that work roles may set up between us, between us coworkers and between staff and customer.  Mixing together in ways like this makes the relationship more personal, more meaningful.

Here is the poem.  Sally liked it.

What's after life?  Native Americans call it "the great mystery".

What’s after life? Native Americans call it “the great mystery”.

(Majo, 11/19/05)

We have been wandering around, you and I
By ourselves, with each other, never knowing
We bump against our different selves
We hold foreign who is our home
We see the dark because we know the light

What is this fog that holds us?
What in us would let be held?
Where are we going?  Where have we been?
What is “us”?  “You”?  “I”?  “Her”?  And “him”?

Life – what is that?
This mystery in which we are lost
The light that leads us
And where does it end?
Where is there that life is not?

Our minds want to separate
Thrive on boundaries
Do not see how dark connects the light
Make you and I imagine
A gulf between the isness that we are

Each moment arises from nowhere
Then slips silent from our grasp
Our grasping punctuates the moments
Makes them seem separate, which they never are

Letting go is our nature, who we’ve always been
And how we got here
Our parents surrendered to the moment
Life has been conceiving us anew ever since

Every birth requires a death
Call it what we will, life changes
Stays not one moment the same
We are not who we were, who we will be

Where we think we see a wall, a cliff, an end
Life continues, in forms we never imagined
We emerge, again and again
New beings of light we never knew

Light is held and framed by dark
As dark is surrounded by light
Our minds see difference
Life does its dance of many forms

Where will we go?  Where have they gone?
Our human eyes, limited as they are
See a river where there is a sea
This connection in which we swim
Has no beginning and no end

If we but shift our gaze
Oh so gently, no effort, no looking for
See the light under the dark and light
The We that always holds you and me
We will not go, they have not gone
We are all right here, one unending now

Drop into this breath of life
Do not try to make this or that
Nothing goes away, while all must die
Life is us, we are Life
We feel the good under “Goodbye”.



I want everybody to watch this video

I want everybody in the world to watch this video.

It’s the highlights of the third degree black belt testing last year of Amy Dexter, who is a very beloved Tae Kwon Do instructor at the martial arts school I attend.  It’s probably especially inspiring to women, maybe especially little women (she’s not 5′) – but it inspires me tremendously.  You don’t need to be considering martial arts practice – it’s about what you can do in all areas of your life if you really go for it.  Go to this link and scroll down to December 15.

The “I can’t do it” voice

On Saturday, I spent six hours at belt testing at our local Sun Soo Tae Kwan Do martial arts school.  After three weeks of taking classes at the school and never having experienced anything like this testing, I was stunned – blown away – by all I saw: so much support and love, so much go-for-it energy, so many people going out of their comfort zones, stretching themselves, doing things they had not thought they could do.  So much excellence, so much mastery, so much beauty.

I have spent the last two days integrating what I experienced.  I expect to continue doing so for a while, but I want to capture some of it now.  First I want to write about how all this confronted me with the “I can’t do this” voice in myself.  I hear this voice on and off the mat.

On the mat (and, by extension, on my imaginary mat when I practice my forms at home), I don’t think I can do it.  I am a total spas, my body just doesn’t work this way.  I am too in my head and can’t get out of it.  I can’t get myself to class enough.  I can’t learn my white belt forms.  I can’t bear the humiliation of being so terrible at movements that everybody else knows – and that 12-year olds are learning faster than me.  I can’t bear the stress of testing on this stuff that I cannot learn.

I do know for sure that my legs will never stretch like this, but how much is possible?

I do know for sure that my legs will never stretch like this, but how much is possible?

Off the mat, I don’t think I can do it.  As I have reflected about this today, I have come up with a long list of things I think I can’t do – and for now will mention two of them.

  • I can’t stay off of sugar.  Sugar is not a harmless indulgence for me.  So much of my life goes out of whack when I am in the clutches of that addiction.  And now I am getting fat from it – and feeling unattractive, less eligible for a romantic relationship, which is an aspiration for me. Each of the black belt candidates read a two-page essay about their Tae Kwon do journey to that point.  One of them related that he stopped smoking the day he started practicing – five years earlier.  I got inspired, but that went away for much of today.  I do intend to get off of sugar tomorrow, but I’ve fallen off that wagon so many times that I don’t believe I can succeed this time.
  • I’ll mention just one more thing (out of that long list) that I feel sure I can’t do.  I can’t keep my room from being a chaotic mess.  I have struggled with this for a lot of years, have had periods of some progress – but mostly not for long.  One of the people testing for a black belt said of her life progress related to her martial arts practice, “I clean my room now.”  This spoke to me.
    Google pulled this up when I searched for photos of clutter, so I shall call this clutter - and it's much less painful to look at than an actual photo of my room.

    Google pulled this up when I searched for photos of clutter, so I shall call this clutter – and it’s much less painful to look at than an actual photo of my room.

    I intend to spend 15 minutes organizing my stuff tomorrow, and I know that if I did 15″ on most days I would eventually have things in order, and some days I will not be able to hold myself back from going longer than 15″ – in love with my momentum.

In Tae Kwon Do, you are continually being confronted with tasks that take you out of your comfort zone – tasks that get more and more complex and physically challenging.  As soon as you master one belt level, you move on to the next.  And, at this school at least, you are also flooded with encouragement  and cheerleading and instruction and connection with your peers who are being similarly challenged.

It starts tomorrow.  I continue to do my Tae Kwon Do practice every day – at home on days, like tomorrow, when I can’t get to the school at the time of a class.  I stay off of sugar.  I spend 15 minutes organizing my room.  A voice in me says I can’t do it.  Another voice says “Maybe I can.”  This already seems like progress.  Another voice says, “We’ll see”.  This is not terribly positive, but better than “I can’t do it.”

In and out of my head on the dance floor

The last post described my Friday dance a week ago.  Here I’m describing last night.

Last night I went to dance even though I was tired and had been depressed for over a week.  I had had a better day and thought I might not be depressed any more, so wanted to give it a try.

And, in fact, I wasn’t depressed.  But I wasn’t having fun.  I was not depressed, but also not high.  I miss being high – I feel so great.  But I think this in between state is way better.  I’ll write about it in my next post.

I love being up, but this state with some up and some down is way better for me.

I love being up, but this state with some up and some down is way better for me.

I wasn’t having fun – was barely dancing.  I thought about leaving – at one point kind of resigned myself that I would probably leave.  But I knew that I wasn’t depressed – and that’s when I leave.  I wasn’t having fun because I was in my head, thinking – thinking about myself, thinking about my day, thinking about dancing – and that was a not fun place to be.

I realized that this was a great chance to practice getting out of my head and into my body.  “For four out of the last five days I have been locked behind a cash register.  Look how much room I have to move here.  My feet hurt, but it’s still fun to move all round, fill the space.  And there are these great playmates encouraging me to move free by the creative ways they are moving.”

I clapped my hands all over my body, to remind myself that it was there.  It’s mostly a non-verbal practice, this dance, but two times i went up to good buddies and said, “I have a body” – and bumped up against them to emphasize it.

There was a new woman there who was very attractive.  I danced into her zone (she mostly stayed in the same place) and found how it energized me – how it got me out of my head and into my body.  I was shy with this new person and didn’t initiate to dance with her – and actually think it’s usually better to give a new person lots of room to move before trying to dance with them – but I still found it stimulating to have her in the room and to dance near her.  At one point she danced around me and even bumped into me.  I looked for eye contact that might indicate she was doing this intentionally.   I didn’t see any, so didn’t follow up, but it still lit me up.

Tom and I have a multifaceted relationship: we were roommates for two years, we work together at the grocery store, we do Interplay (improvisational movement, storytelling and song) together – and we dance together (at the same dances).  And we usually do dance together – like really together – more than once over the course of a dance.  He likes engaged dancing probably even more than me and he frequently initiates towards me – and I like that.

Tom and I sometimes do contact improv dancing as we pass each other in the store aisles.  It's mostly pretty minimal, but it brings the world of dance into the world of work and kind of lights things up.

Tom and I sometimes do contact improv dancing as we pass each other in the store aisles. It’s mostly pretty minimal, but it brings the world of dance into the world of work and kind of lights things up.

He also takes a stance for the value of me staying on the dance floor when i feel like i have to leave – and likes to do what he can to keep me there.  We typically dance rough and energetic – it really gets me into the room, into my body.  This helped a lot last night.

Solon came in late and wrapped me up in a big  bear hug.  He frequently says he loves me when he sees me.  He didn’t say it tonight, but I felt it.  I felt better about myself from his presence in the room.

I succeeded only some of the time at getting into my body – I was in and out of my head.  But getting out of my head is big work for me – it’s going to be my work for a long time, maybe forever.  And I was neither manic nor depressed and that’s good stuff for me.