Thursday, January 31, 2008

Respite for the Restless Mind

Kasey Cox

Every year, in the beginning of October, several health and mental health associations sponsor a “Mental Illness Awareness Week”. This past fall, I thought of writing a book review column highlighting books that help people who suffer from depression and/or manic-depression. I then learned that other advocacy groups promote a mental health awareness month in May. I decided to split the difference, and write about mental health for January, the time when many of us who live in our mountain homes struggle with some symptoms of depression from “seasonal affect.” Most of us have our techniques for coping with the confines of the bad weather or the doldrums from gray days. But some of us experience much more than minor symptoms.

When I was hospitalized for depression, a friend brought me a highlighter and 14,000 Things to Be Happy About by Barbara Ann Kipfer. It didn’t cure me; in fact, one definitive symptom of depression is that the sufferer doesn’t feel happy about things that would normally bring pleasure. Nevertheless, the highlighting session helped me remember happier times, gave a little wider perspective – something else depression often steals. It helped comfort me through a difficult time, which is why those who document their depression and mental disorders are so important to others who have the same disease.

In writing anything addressing mental health, I understand that those who suffer from these mental health issues are not just those who have been diagnosed with the illness, because certainly family, friends, co-workers – indeed, whole communities – suffer with those who are trying to deal with these slippery, chronic, and widespread illnesses.

In 2001, Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. This surprised me at the time, because, in a culture where openly discuss everything from the sordid details of Hollywood’s addictions to the sympathetic spaghetti dinners we hold for a neighbor’s prostate cancer, we still whisper about mental illness. We talk about a person’s battles with schizophrenia or manic-depression the way people used to murmur about “the big C” in the 1950’s. For this article, I humbly follow in Solomon’s footsteps: “one of the aims” of his writing, he said, “is to remove the burden of stigma from mental illness” by speaking up about his experiences and cataloging others’.

Ironically, though, one of the difficulties in finding – and reviewing – books on mood disorders is not the lack of books. We may have a hard time disclosing our mental health difficulties to our community, as individual people, but as a whole, Americans want to tell their stories. Again, Andrew Solomon sums this up beautifully: “I have never written on any subject about which so many people have so much to say …. It is frighteningly easy to accumulate material about depression.” The problem is in choosing which books are best for you. It’s a question of finding the right match, much like medications or therapists.

This is where I recommend following the advice of doctors Michael Rozien and Mehmet Oz. You may know them better as the authors of the best-selling series of “You” health books, as in You: the Owner’s Manual, and You: on a Diet. For folks dealing with mental illness, be they “patient” or family, get yourself a copy of You: the Smart Patient. Perhaps the single most important thing you can do for yourself is to learn how to navigate the medical system – how to communicate efficiently and effectively with the medical staff you must interact with, how to keep accurate health records, how to research alternative medicine options, how to deal with insurance companies. This book will not solve all the frustrations involved in this often nasty process, but it will go a long way in smoothing the way.

Another very practical book for “consumers” of the mental health system – so labeled by some mental health advocates to remind “patients” of their need to take an active role in choosing which medical staff they will use – is a new classic of the “consumer-driven” mental health movement. Mary Ellen Copeland, who lives with both chronic pain and a mood disorder, has authored and co-authored several fantastic books which give step-by-step plans for living well with these illnesses. Now used regularly by therapists, group home managers, and social workers, alongside their clients, The Depression Workbook: A Guide for Living with Depression and Manic-Depression as well as Living without Depression and Manic-Depression: A Workbook for Maintaining Mood Stability are, literally, lifesaving guides.

As helpful as it is to have practical, factual information, there is a balm like no other in the validation one gets from reading firsthand accounts of others who have experienced similar circumstances. This is especially true in dealing with illness, which often isolates those afflicted. There are many memoirs written about living with mental illness, especially with mood disorders. The two that stand out and stand the test of time are Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind and William Styron’s Darkness Visible.

Both of these authors are brilliant, accomplished people, who write from both spectrums of manic-depression. Jamison herself is an M.D., Ph.D., in psychiatry and in psychology, making her a much-sought-after psychiatrist with the education to engage in therapy and counseling with her patients as well as treating them medically. She wrote several of the standard textbooks used in medical schools for psychiatry, and worked as a doctor for many years before divulging that she, too, had bipolar disorder. Though Jamison’s experiences were more about the dangerous, near psychotic highs of pure mania, she has also dealt with shattering depression, and writes lucidly about both.

William Styron wrote Sophie’s Choice and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. In 1985, he suffered a crippling, life-threatening depression. The miracle is not just that he survived this – the statistics of those who have not are insidiously larger than most would believe, and Styron names a few famous predecessors who did not – but that he was able to write about his experiences afterward. I don’t think I have ever read such descriptions of depression that echo so resounding in my soul.

Looking to educate yourself? Try Lewis Wolpert’s Malignant Sadness. As a developmental biologist, Wolpert explains the physiological aspects of mood disorders, but with a great deal of human warmth and sympathy. If you are looking for warmth and sympathy, I recommend picking up J. Ruth Gendler’s The Book of Qualities. This lovely little book is one of my absolute favorites. Gendler describes each emotion and characteristic of humanity as though it were a person: Change wears orange socks; Despair has stopped listening to music; Faith is not afraid of Doubt, because she grew up with him. Every time I read this book, no matter where I am in my life, I am reminded gently of the beauty in my humanity, and that I am not alone in my experiences.

The bottom line, of course, is that books won’t cure you. I wish they could. They may comfort you, though, and serve as an important resource through confusing, troubling times. Most of all, I hope this article and some of these books empower you and your family to speak out, get help, and stop living in shame. Be well.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Breathe easy into 2008

Kasey Cox

Too often, once the merriment and bustle of December has passed, the long winter months seem to loom before us. Instead of seeing New Year’s Resolutions as the grim tightening of the belt on pants that already feel too tight from holiday celebrating, I encourage all of us to see New Year “Resolutions” as a promise to ourselves: this is how I will take good care of myself and the people I love in the coming year. Think of it not as a deep breath so you can cinch in that belt, but, instead, a deep, cleansing breath. Like crisp winter air on a beautiful walk in the woods, or at the top of the ski run. Like the breath you take before you laugh. Like the breathing you practice in meditation or yoga.

To help you get started with this breath, I recommend “Babar’s Yoga for Elephants”. Whimsical and practical, Babar explains how yoga has helped him, as well as his wife, Queen Celeste, and all their citizens. There’s a pullout poster with 15 postures, all detailed further in the book, and instructions for breathing exercises. Hopefully we needn’t worry much about our trunks getting in the way. If yoga sounds too much like something only young, really bendy people can do, Babar will set you at ease – but long-time practitioners will enjoy it, too. For those considering yoga or wanting to learn more about it, I relate this tidbit to you: my sister (Hatha and Ashtanga-certified yoga teacher) gave my parents the “KISS Guide to Yoga” when she first began to get serious about her practice and her certification. More friendly than any “Dummies” or “Idiots” books – the last “S” stands for “series”, not “stupid”, as in the original mnemonic – this wonderful book introduces some of the history of yoga, its various forms, the meditation part, the nutrition guidelines suggested in yoga practices, and then focuses the majority of the book on wonderful poses, complete with color photos and explanations.

Now, if your breathing is becoming panicked every time you look at your bank statements, perhaps budgeting help will usher in slower, more regular breathing while you teach yourself slower, more regulated spending, saving, and bill paying. Include at least one of these books in your budget planning: “America’s Cheapest Family Gets You Right On the Money”, by Steve and Annette Economides (yes, that is their real family name!). “Your Money or Your Life”, by Joe Dominiquez and Vicki Robin. “The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Living on a Budget”, by Peter and Jennifer Sander. In each of these books, you’ll find certain suggestions that don’t fit for you, that seem extreme, hard-handed, or even downright wrong. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, though – overall, each of these books offers helpful advice, practical suggestions, a beneficial and perhaps very necessary change of perspective for the reader.

The Economides husband and wife team have been featured numerous times on TV and radio talk shows, most notably Good Morning, America. Woven through the book is their personal story of raising five children while still paying off a mortgage, taking family vacations, and eating healthy. The book itself is very efficiently and practically laid out, with chapters on groceries and meal planning, budgeting, saving, and big projects. The advice is gentle but firm, clearly written, humorous and inspirational. The best part is the options given at the end of each section, allowing you to choose just how frugal you will be. As an important contrast, “Your Money or Your Life” differs from “America’s Cheapest Family” in that Dominiquez and Robin encourage the reader to examine their money attitudes, not just their specific actions.

If you’re looking for motivation to get out in the crisp winter air, try Stackpole Books’ “Discover Nature in Winter: Things to Know and Things to Do”? Part of a fantastic series, including “Discover Nature in the Rocks” and “Discover Nature in the Garden”, these books give literally hundreds of suggestions for outdoor activities, as well as explanations for the things you may find. Although the books are short on color photos, they are perfect for families and for teachers. Supply or make your own “color views” on this one, just by being there, or by taking along your own notebook to draw, or camera to capture your findings.

So, grab a book, a New Year’s party hat, and take a deep breath. Welcome to 2008!

Respire or inspire? Hobo has the answers and wants to hear your opinions, at Get inspired by Hobo’s own stories, archived at

Stocking stuffers or little gifties

Kasey Cox

‘Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the town, people were scurrying, and rushing around. Counting the last few dollars in purses, despite holiday cheer, I heard a few curses. Last minute gifts, for hard-to-buy folks; stockings longing for more than dollar-store jokes. I want to shop local, so I’ll go have a look. Hark! Lo! It hits me: I’ll go get some books!

Track Pack: Animal Tracks in Full Life Size, by Ed Gray; illustrated by DeCourcy Taylor, Jr.; published by the one and only Stackpole Books. What’s not to like? A small, spiral-bound bound that fits in your pocket, this fantastic nature guide shows a drawing of the animal and a map of its range on the left side of the pages, with a photorealistic, true-to-life-size drawing of the animal’s print on the right side. Whether you’re out power-hiking in the Canyon, or just noticing tracks in your backyard, you can hold this handy little book up right next to the tracks and compare. Extra-cool thing: the pages with the BIG tracks fold out to fit bear paws and moose tracks! This is a great present for kids ages 4 to 104.

Folks who are interested in science, the outdoors, and little resource books that pack a wallop of info might remember the little “Golden Guides.” Recently, St. Martin’s Press started updating and reprinting these treasures. With full-color illustrations, charts, maps, and photos on every page, these pocket-sized guides are fun for kids and adults. Each Golden Guide is individually written by an expert in the field, be it “Pond Life” or “Geology” or “Stars”. Though they are simple enough for kids and beginners wanting an introduction to a subject, I know my brother had to buy the Golden Guide to “The Night Sky” for a college Astronomy class.

In the last two years, the Andrews McMeel Publishing Company has swept the “bestselling” book charts and the gift-giving world with their “-‘Ology” books. These large, hardcover, charming “Guides” include “Dragonology”, “Pirateology”, “Wizardology”, “Egyptology”, and this year’s new favorite, “Mythology”. Intricately decorated, with elaborate script, envelopes to open, “jewels” inlaid on covers and pages, they are a delight for all the senses. Though these books may not fit the stocking, their sidelines may. My favorite is a little red box kit entitled Obscure Spells and Charms of Dragon Origin. This Dragonology kit includes an “ancient sample of dragon dust”, a pretty darn cool Dragon pendant, a miniature book written in “Dragon Runes”, and a decoder for the Dragon languages. If your “kid” is a fantasy or dragon lover, this is the just the ticket.

Finally, you can’t go wrong with a mass-market paperback. Originally sold as “pulp fiction”, mass-market paperbacks were invented to bring fiction to the masses at a more affordable price. Also, during and after World War 2, soldiers could carry their Westerns or classics when they were traveling light, and they didn’t have to worry if the cheaper material fell apart. Today, there are tens of thousands of mass-market paperbacks to choose from. They fit the budget, the stocking, or the suitcase better than the “trade” or “quality” paperbacks of slightly larger size. Too many choices got you all in a flutter? Since Hamilton-Gibson’s next production is Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, grab a copy of the book (by Roald Dahl) instead of seeing Johnny Depp or Gene Wilder being creepy.

So, even if you’ve waited till the last minute to do your shopping, all hope is not lost. The light at the end of the tunnel is not The Polar Express come to run you down.

What snack do you leave for the man in red? Don’t forget to check out the cat’s book. It’s easier to stuff in a stocking than a cat. Miss a column? They are available online at

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Old Tractors

Kevin Coolidge

I find myself on a back road, late at night, with a flat tire. It’s not snowing heavy—well, not yet--but there are flurries dancing in the beam of my headlights. Okay, headlight--I still haven’t fixed the passenger side headlight after I hit that deer. I take the flat off. I hate having to do anything with my car. I am male and so I am obliged to pretend I know something about cars. I mean, if there is steam coming out from under my hood, I will open the hood and stare at the engine just like I am diagnosing the problem. All the time, I am hoping someone will stop by and help, or at least offer me a shotgun so I may put the car out of my misery, but hey, I can handle a flat…

I believe that’s why I find the tractor books by Roger Welsch so appealing. The first rule of writing is to write what you know. If you write all you know, and you don’t learn anything new, then what is there to write about? Welsch is a retired college professor from Nebraska who was about as mechanical as myself. He had never even changed the oil in his car. He still doesn’t, and so what could be more natural than writing a book about how to get rusted piece of iron running again?

Old Tractors and the Men Who Love Them is about rebuilding a 1937 Allis Chalmers WC tractor. Welsch is a folklorist and humorist who has appeared on the CBS News Sunday Morning program with a segment called “Postcards from Nebraska”. There’s lot old Rog doesn’t know, and he’s the first to admit it. “Okay, so I don’t know many of the answers,” explains Roger. “Thing is, most books like this are written by experts who have forgotten the kinds of problems beginners like me run into.” He may not have all the answers, but he knows all the questions.

So, why restore an old tractor? Well, for one reason everything is right there. You don’t even have to lean over to reach the oil filter. It’s at waist level, right where any sensible person would expect it to be. An Allis WC has exactly four wires, one to each spark plug, which sits right out in plain sight. You don’t need a lot of tools to work on them. It was understood by the manufacturer that these tractors were going to be worked on by a farmer without a lot of time and who owned a couple of wrenches, a screwdriver with a broken tip, and a hammer.

Sometimes, it is just as important to know what not to do, and Roger gives many examples of his mistakes. For example, you should never eat peanuts in the shop. Anyone who has ever had red squirrels in their attic can identify with the why. These little pests will stash peanuts in transmissions, valve covers, rag boxes, and everywhere else they can squirm.

There’s some good solid advice for a mechanical novice. Welsch covers the basics like the shop, tools, safety equipment, and resources. He does all this with a quirky sense of humor, observations on life, and how to manage to stay married while dragging home yet another pile of orange rust. He makes tractor-restoring sound therapeutic and fun and heck, I feel like even I could do it. If you enjoy this book, be sure to check out his follow-up, Busted Tractors and Rusty Knuckles. Thing is, learning is a process. Hmm, maybe instead writing what I know, I’ll write about what I want to know…

Lefty loosey or righty tighty? Old tractors or classic cars? Drop me an email at Miss a column? Catch up at Find out why Hobo left the farm in “Hobo Finds A Home.” Does not contain any Allis Chalmers tractors because Farmer Brown rides a John Deere. Be sure to catch Hobo on 60 Minutes interviewed by Andy Rooney.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Of A Predatory Heart

Kevin Coolidge

This morning, I wrestled a bear in my pajamas; now, how he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know. That’s right-- I was born right here in Wellsboro Pennsylvania and I grew up loving the woods and the wild things in ‘em. I remember fishing for bass with my uncle, and gathering ginseng with my Grandpa and berries with my Grandma (I always ended up with more in my belly, than in the basket), and just lying in the backyard under a starry summer sky.

I’m writing this book review Of A Predatory Heart for seasoned woodsman, Joe Parry. Joe is just what he appears to be, a blue-collar, working class guy, but Joe has a talent that not everyone has. Joe is a natural storyteller, and he can put it to paper. The first rule of writing is to write what you know. Joe does one better, he writes what he is, a little guy with a big heart. His stories brought memories of my Grandpa, and my first hunting knife, of that special dog, and some brought tears of laughter. But more importantly, I thought these were stories that would do the same for many people the world over. You know how you read a book so good that you just have to share it? Yep, this is just such a book. Joe is chock full of tales and has many quality stories.

Joe Parry, a Vietnam vet and an outdoor writer, has written for the Pennsylvania Game News, Field and Stream, Fins and Feathers, Turkey Magazine, Sports Afield, Readers Digest, Northwest Outdoors, the Philadelphia Daily News, and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, and our very own Wellsboro Gazette. These stories on hunting, fishing, and the outdoor lifestyle run from snort-milk-through-your nose funny, to bringing a tear to a seasoned woodsman’s eye. It’s a memoir of a lifelong outdoorsman, starting from his return from the Vietnam War, with tales ranging from archery hunting, flyfishing, introducing children to woodcraft, and the bond that forms between generations through appreciation of the woodlands.

I especially enjoyed reading, The Royal Roachman. My uncle was a dedicated fly fisherman, and I remember the dining room table covered with vices and tiny hooks and filled with turkey feathers and multi-colored deer tails. I would watch him create delicate mimicries and speak of matching the hatch. That’s why I could not stop laughing when I read the short story. Anyone who has every tried to duplicate one of nature’s creations, will surely appreciate “Big Bill’s” gallant but feeble attempt, and the creation of THE FLY.

Perhaps, that’s what is so familiar about Joe’s book. It will remind you of home. Hunting and fishing is an important part of our culture here in Tioga County, and there’s something about the smell of gun oil and the searing heat of a woodstove that has a place in any hunters heart. If you were raised hunting, you know there’s just something about a gun. No man deserves the title of hunter that doesn’t feel a deep, honest gratitude for nature’s bounty.
Joe feels this and it’s evident in his writing. This collection of short stories has a widespread appeal, from non-hunters to avid fishermen, to seasoned vets who cherish the solitude and majesty of the forest. If you enjoyed Of Woods and Wild Things by Wellsboro Gazette columnist Don Knaus, you are going to love Of A Predatory Heart. As my Uncle once said, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he’ll be drinking beer and spinning tales before you know it. So, grab a cold drink, hunker down, and enjoy some great outdoor writing…

Joe Parry will be signing his new book at From My Shelf Books Saturday January 19, 2007 from Noon to 3PM

Fish or cut bait? Drop me an email at Miss a pass column? Reload at Catch the cat’s book, “Hobo Finds A Home” about a barn cat who wanted more than to hunt mice. Watch for the in depth documentary of “Hobo in the Wild” on the Nature Channel.