Nome, Alaska March 2001

Woe Is Me

The only way to conquer melancholy is to embrace it

Illustration by Gregory Manchess

When I was younger, I used to—not enjoy, exactly, but take a certain satisfaction from being melancholy and depressed. As a single guy in an apartment in New York, I often spent days at a time in an unbroken mood of gloom, regret, self-recrimination, dislike for the world and for other human beings, and general unearned despair. In later years, married and with kids, I had to give up this indulgence. Walking around depressed with no reason is disagreeable behavior for which family and friends will rebuke you, rightly.

Plus I just didn't have the time for it anymore. Whenever I'd get started on a good downslope of melancholy, family concerns or pleasures would distract me, and I would abandon my mood in irritation. Nowadays my only opportunity for an old-fashioned, self-indulgent sulk comes when I'm traveling.

I had one opportunity recently in Nome, Alaska, a far-northern town on the Bering Sea. I had gone there to do some reporting, which bad weather made impossible. I sat in my motel room for several days, getting gloomier and gloomier. Rain fell constantly. The month was August, and the rainy twilight lasted from four in the morning until midnight. Outside my window Bering Sea waves the color of wet cement landed on the riprap shoreline with thuds. To say that Nome, Alaska, is mainly mud with pieces of rusted iron sticking out of it is to be unfair to that interesting place, but so it appeared to me at the time. On my motel-room bed I read obscure books to the sound of the rain and the waves, taking occasional breaks to stare at the ceiling. I saw almost no one, never cracked a smile, and was as sorry for myself as I could be. After three or four days, completely bummed out, I went to the airport and flew home. I arrived pale, monosyllabic, and wonderfully refreshed.

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