I decided to stop taking anti-depressant medication and thought I should tell my friends so they could keep an eye out for erratic behavior. Then I decided to write a journal in order to monitor my feelings; finally I thought I’d publish the journal on the blog. The reasons for that are a bit more complicated but I’ll explain.

One of the symptoms of my depression is isolation: the feeling that I can’t really connect with anyone on an honestly emotional level. When the depression is at its worst, I compound the effect by physically isolating myself from everyone. So, in an attempt to counter these tendencies, I decided to violate my own predilection for privacy by publishing my thoughts and reactions on this issue. That may not be as radical as it seems because the audience for this blog would fit nicely in my living room, probably has.

Saturday, 10 January is Day 6 of this experiment and I’ve been beset by a cold throughout, so it’s difficult to gauge the effects so far. Let’s start with a bit of history and the events that led me to try to quit the medication. A diagnosis of major depression has been consistent through several shrinks for most of my adult life although I really think it goes back to my childhood. I’ve been on a several different medications for 15-20 years, not sure exactly when it started. With the occasional help of therapy, I’ve been able to function throughout, making a living and sustaining, to a point, loving, romantic relationships.

But writing a semi-autobiographical novel spurred profound changes: everything in my life was subjected to critical self-analysis and I began to look at many events and relationships as failures. Naturally, I wondered about the role of depression in everything I had experienced. Thinking and writing about my parents, I saw my mother as someone who had encased herself in a protective shell. Nothing could touch her, therefore nothing could hurt her again. Merde, I thought, that’s exactly what I had done. My mother had very good reasons to seek emotional protection, but I could not recall anything to justify my response.

For me, the instinct to guard my emotions led beyond isolation to timorousness; when I tried to breach the isolation, I did so with a guarded reticence that was no more effective than staying home. I thought to adopt Stuart Brand’s advice to “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” and maybe that helped me begin a novel but couldn’t help beyond that. Writing is, after all, a solitary pursuit, so it wasn’t too hard to work it into my comfort zone. Elsewhere, I was timid, apprehensive, unable to break through the shell even when the stakes were high and, I was sure the goal was worthy.

Given all this, why quit taking the medication? If behavioral patterns extend back before the meds, what can be gained by stopping? Just this: I’ve come to suspect that while the drugs have a moderating effect that keeps me on an even keel and allows me to function, it is precisely that effect that hardens the shell around me. In other words, getting by isn’t good enough and I think I’ve learned enough to be able to cope with whatever comes along. If a deeper emotional response fractures the shell just a little bit, that’s a positive result worth pursuing, before it’s too late.

One other thing: in a successful autobiographical novel the reader makes an emotional connection to the protagonist. In reading my work I saw that I wasn’t getting deep enough, revealing enough to allow this to happen. Self-censorship undermines emotion in fiction and in life. I’m hoping that losing the medication will allow me to pierce the protective skin.

This blog will use the journal of reactions to explore some of the issues raised in the novel and, maybe, create a blueprint for better fiction. If I’m able to maintain the blog as planned, you’ll be able to follow along on this adventure and, I hope, contribute some feedback.


David Bowie Photo
Couldn’t resist hauling out a photo of David Bowie ©1980 Ron Scherl

I’m packing up and heading back to San Francisco; 18 months in a village of 900 people is a long time for a city kid. It’s been a good and productive time. The photo book          is now in shape and being considered for publication. The all-text version is progressing and I plan to get out of town before the fictional version appears. So I’ve returned to being a photographer and also begun to discover a voice as a writer. And in a more serious vein, I’ve also become an expert pizzaiolo and make a pretty good bagel as well.

I thought for a while that I would move to Perpignan but the more I thought, the more I realized I really wanted to go back home. That’s what happens here in the winter, you spend a lot of time indoors, in your own head. Actually, it’s amazingly warm here at the moment. I just came from coffee in the garden of some friends, opened the windows and even sat on the terrace for a while. It’s a shock after last year’s very cold winter. Now that I have all the windows covered with Saran Wrap, it’s 72o and sunny.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Craig’s list lately looking for apartments and it’s like a drug. I see photos that look great and think I could be happy there, and then I feel happy, for a few minutes. As my new friend Claire said, it’s like online dating. Of course as an experienced Photoshop user, I’m very wary of the validity of the photos, although it’s much more likely that they’re photos of another apartment rather than retouched photos of the actual place. But not only are the fees through the roof, there’s enormous competition for what is available, all those facebookers, tweeters and googleites need to live somewhere and they clearly prefer the city to the valley.

Going home is a good thing, so is starting a new chapter. Going back to a familiar and comfortable place feels right, just as leaving it was right at the time, but changing circumstances and a different attitude will bring new challenges. And that’s also a good thing. One of the down sides of a small rural village is that for most people roles are defined by tradition: many of those playing bingo at the seniors club are no older than me, but their roles seem to have been pre-determined; they appear to be following a script. This is what you do when you reach a certain age. Not true for everyone, but the narrow offerings of a small village do limit options and imagination. As I write this, the 5:30 loudspeaker announcement from the Mairie is indeed about tomorrow’s “séance de loto.”

I can, of course, come back here and I will. I still have my share of the house and I have made friends that I’d like to keep. But for now, while the blog will continue, I think I’ll put my bingo career on hold.

Bingo ©2012 Ron Scherl
Bingo ©2012 Ron Scherl

One Year

Thursday marks one year to the day since I arrived in Maury, a chance to indulge in a bit of reflection. I came here because I had to change and because I thought I could make a book here. The book was to be the story of what happens to a traditional rural village when new money comes in to build wineries and make new “International” wines from the old vines that for centuries have been farmed by local families and delivered to the coop to make strong, if mostly undistinguished table wines and a well known fortified sweet wine that is drunk as an aperitif. I was interested in exploring the downside of globalization by drawing a portrait of a village undergoing radical change from rural and isolated to a “wine experience” where tourists flock to bask in the glory of the latest cult wines. I expected to find that locals were being driven off their land and out of their homes by rising prices. I thought the younger generation would be abandoning the village for the city because they could no longer envision succeeding their parents in the family vineyards. I expected corporate hotels and cute B&B’s to be on the drawing board. So what has happened here? Not much.

Change happens but here, everything happens very slowly. Certainly there is new money being invested in the region and that will have some effect in the years to come, but for now the effect is benign. Dave Phinney, (aka: the guy from Napa) has bought 100 hectares of vineyards that were scheduled to be torn out either because they were not productive enough, or because the family had no one left to farm them. That’s about one million euros into a local economy that sorely needs it. Yes, he’s built a winery that seems designed to keep people away and yes, he makes blockbuster, high alcohol, wines for the U.S. market and he will sell them because Phinney is a master marketer. But who is this hurting? Do other winemakers feel they have to keep upping the ante by making bigger wines to match? I don’t see it. The French don’t feel as if they’re being exploited, on the contrary, they argue that all publicity is good and all Maury winemakers stand to profit if the town becomes better known in the wine world.

This is arguable of course, but the mayor, an incurable optimist, believes that change can be managed. He foresees a time when as much as 50% of the vineyards might be owned by outsiders and a free interchange of skills and ideas benefits everyone. That’s a tall order but Charley has the combination of warmth and charisma that makes you want to believe. We’ll see.

There are others here now and they all add something a little different: Marcel Buhler has gone from being a Swiss banker to an organic wine grower. Katie Jones is getting good press for her wines. Eugenia Keegan just bought some vineyards. There’s a group of Mexican vintners just over the hill and Chapoutier from the Rhone just released his first Roussillon wine in the US.

All of this activity has taken place in the last ten years but there aren’t many obvious signs of change in the village. There are about thirty independent wineries in town and more often than not you’ll find multiple generations working together. The coop membership has stabilized with about 130 growers and a goal of making equal amounts of sweet and dry wines. I’ve recently been working with a marketing committee there composed of three men and two women all in their 20’s.

So change is slow and the book I envisioned is not going to happen, well it might be done some day but not by me. I think the impact on the village of the new wineries of today is twenty years away from being evident. I don’t have that kind of patience. Instead, I’ll provide a source for that writer down the road: a portrait of the village as it is today, a look at some of the surrounding area, and a discussion of the only game in town, making wine. The interesting thing about this for me is how much personal taste and philosophy determine the final product. Every winemaker will tell you that the wine she is making truly expresses the terroir from which it comes; yet there are huge differences in wines from the same place. I realize that even a small difference in location, even within the same vineyard, can make a difference in the wine, but the more profound differences come from the mind of the winemaker.

Here’s how Larry Walker put it in an email:

“Maury Grenache will produce what it is told to produce within certain limits. Those limits are very flexible and are set by the will of the winemaker: how ripe do I let these grapes get? How long do I leave them on the skins? How long in oak and what % of new oak–and there are a lot of other details but those are the Big Three: grape ripeness, skin contact, barrel treatment.”

I’ve produced a first step book through Blurb that I originally thought I’d use as a portfolio sample to try to persuade tourist and trade organizations to sponsor the book by agreeing to buy a substantial number of copies. Now I think I’m just going to produce the book I want to make and then see if anyone’s interested in publishing it, which is kind of how this whole thing started.

Between the Vines Cover ©2012 Ron Scherl


Two Encounters

New Years Day I reluctantly dragged myself from bed around noon and took a coffee up to the terrace to heal in the sun. Tout à coup, an Alfred Hitchcock movie broke out. The sun brought out more birds than I had ever seen. Run down for the camera, back up for the show. They’re starlings I believe. Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe describes them as “jaunty, quarrelsome and garrulous.” (Serious understatement) The voice is a “harsh descending tcheer with a medley of clear whistles, clicks, rattles and chuckles, woven into a long, rambling song.” Now multiply that by about 100,000 and you have some idea of the sound and why some people went looking for their weapons. The noise was incredible, as they seemed to call (or tweet) all their friends to say the weather was nice here and there’s a good tree for resting. This became a flash mob, the numbers grew, the tree was overcrowded and the quarrels escalated. I couldn’t come close to an estimate, 100,000 is probably low, but for you Photoshop skeptics, this photo is real and only covers a small section of the flock.

Starlings ©2012 Ron Scherl


After about 30 minutes, someone had had enough and fired off a gun, which the birds took to mean that the weather may be nice but they weren’t too sure of the people. They stopped talking and took off, and I went down to wash my hair.


Spent the next morning applying for Social Security and needed a walk after lunch. There’s something powerfully restorative about a walk in the vineyards, even in winter when the old vines look dead as can be. They’re not, of course and we know winter will end, the vines will bud, sprout leaves, grow fruit and there will be more wine. It’s just a good idea to get out there and remember. And if you need a longer perspective, there are young vines too, new plantings just taking root.

Pruning ©2012 Ron Scherl

I met an 89-year-old man with few teeth and the heavy local accent, which left me understanding very little. Here’s what I learned: he was born here, lived here all his life, fought in the war of 1940, his father in the war of 1914, and he knows that war is never good. His back hurts some, but he can continue working the vines because he’s not tall like me. His arms are strong from working the vineyards all his life. It’s a lot of work but he likes being outside. He also likes Barack Obama and a pastis now and then.

He continues to work his vineyards and I don’t think there’s anyone to take over when he no longer can. If that’s the case, another winemaker will purchase the land, or the vines will be torn out by a successor not interested in making wine. The land isn’t really suited for crops other than wine or olives, neither of which is likely to make anyone rich any time soon.  So what is best for the town: to let the land lie fallow, hope foreign investors want to purchase the vineyard, or seek subsidies to build housing for which there doesn’t appear to be a great demand? It’s a critical question for a town with an aging population and the answer isn’t easy. Mayor Chivilo sees the answer in a balance of new and old but getting there requires a sufficient number of local families continuing in the wine business. There are some, but at this time no one knows if there are enough. Change happens slowly here, but it does happen.

A Little Background

The idea of moving to France goes back to the first time I landed there on a rainy night, not much money and no clue where to go. A friend and I had been on the road for a while and decided we needed a hotel for the night. Wandering empty streets, looking for a hotel or someone to ask, we see a driver pulling into a rare parking space and stop him to ask for directions. Putting the lie to every cliche about rude Parisians and giving up his parking space, he takes us to a nearby and very cheap hotel and thereby creates a bond with the country and the people that has only grown over the years.

Many visits and French lessons later I was in a management training program, playing games and doing exercises designed to move me up the ladder. We needed to select a goal and chart out the steps to get there; my goal was to own a house in France within five years and all my necessary steps added up to the height of the Eiffel Tower.

But things happen and some things you make happen.

Prospective partners appeared, web searches pinpointed affordable areas and turned up a real estate agent, one town led to another, and the right house came on the market. Finally, George Bush was reinstalled in the White House and I wanted to be sure there was somewhere else to go. We bought the house.

Lunch on the terrace
Lunch on the Terrace

Maury is in the southeast corner of France, in a valley between the Pyrenees and the Corbieres mountains. It’s close to the Mediterranean and the Spanish border about three hours north of Barcelona. It is French Catalunya. Wine grows here and not much else and wine is the major source of income in the region. This blog will look at regional societal changes caused by globalization in the wine industry and generational changes in wine producing families.

Getting it Together

Everything began in January. Alone in Maury, photographing winter vineyards and vignerons, learning to prune the vines, tasting from barrel, visiting large and small wineries, I decided to do a book. It would be mostly photographs, but some text was needed. It would speak of global changes while focusing on the region around Maury. Wine would be central to the book as it is to the region, but it would symbolize other industries in other places. It may be published as an e-book or in print, but it would start as a blog.

It’s exciting and intimidating, involving leaving a job, changing a long standing relationship, leaving a home, the big three of peace of mind. There aren’t many times in life that we’re faced with a truly life changing decision and the older we get, the fewer such opportunities arise and the harder it becomes to take advantage of them. The only reasonable answer was: “if not now, when?”

And now I make lists, on paper, on the phone, tablet and computer, and in my head at night when I’d rather be sleeping.Photo of lists

The French visa process is not designed to make you feel welcome. There are lists of documents, some to be notarized, all to be copied and presented in the prescribed order. There are security guards and plexiglass boundaries, pictures to be taken (do not smile) and color coded chairs to be occupied. I know unemployment is a problem and no I will not look for a job. Yes I have enough money, a place to live and health insurance. I will not be a drain on scarce and fraying resources. No matter how precise I thought I was, there was something not quite up to their standards and a small delay is the penalty. And when I return I also need to bring my itinerary.

So, it’s time to pick the date and buy the ticket. August 15 becomes the date and the deadline. Revise the lists with the time frame set.

So today I went to a packing and shipping service to get some estimates on getting my stuff to Maury. I found a helpful guy who couldn’t resist asking: “Are you moving there? Wow man, that’s my dream too, I just don’t have it together yet.”