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"What are you thinking about?"

If you are a woman, you have looked at a man, a silent, staring man, who appears filled with sorrow or emptied of a frontal lobe, and asked this question. Men often waft into a catatonia that's as irresistible to women as bubble wrap. So you ask.

And he says, "Nothing." He means it. He's thinking nothing.

At other times, a woman will pour out her distressed heart to a guy, and instead of joining the drama, he will say, " Don't think about it." He isn't kidding. Men can do that.

Maybe it's primal: Prehistoric women had to read the faces of inarticulate infants while men had to save the tribe from saber-toothed tigers and didn't have time to consider how they felt about that. So women inherited this insatiable desire to decode, and men, lucky men, inherited a head empty of all but the present. If there's nothing going on, they can think about nothing. I believe this because my friend Bob, who had no reason to lie, once told me so. He said, "I can go through a whole day and I might think about Green Acres or what I want to have for dinner, but that's about it. Women think all the time, and that's their problem."

Mind over matter

And it's not just thinking -- it's worry. While a man might have at best neutral thoughts, women's mental gears seem to be forever grinding down their nerves. We are always looking ahead. A woman can get a dinner-party invitation and immediately begin strategizing like a four-star general over her wardrobe, the guest list, what wine to bring, while a man thinks, "Free food." It's no wonder women are more prone to depression.

And whether it's just a little Morrissey-level whininess or a full-blown Ophelian breakdown, getting out of depression can be harder than staying in it. Even minimal research into the subject turned up the headline, "Feeling depressed? You may be at greater risk of a stroke." This is just what every Eeyore needs to hear. Some antidepressants cause weight gain, and with therapy running $100 an hour, you might never be able to afford to be happy again.

It seems, instead, there is something important to be learned from men. They are more easily distracted and less prone to depression. Doctors in England seem to have seen this equation and are beginning to prescribe distraction to their patients rather than pills.

Beginning in September, West Yorkshire doctors will not send their patients with mild anxieties to the pharmacist, but to the librarian, according to the online magazine Salon. Upgraded to the heady title "bibliotherapist," the librarian will prescribe a customized reading list to each patient, noting books that will inspire, inform or even just distract the overstressed person away from their worries. So instead of popping a pill and feeling like your brain is coated with a few layers of Saran Wrap, you pop open a copy of "Wuthering Heights" or "Dirty Jokes and Beer" and go into another world for a while. It's not for psychoses, just mild anxieties that might be soothed with distraction, kind of like the way you can make a baby stop wailing just by showing it something colorful. It seems we haven't changed that much from infancy; the distractions just happen to be bigger.

A novel cure

It's so simple, it's no wonder it took this long for anyone to see it. Often misery is a matter of perspective, and nothing alters perspective like a change of scene. You can change the scene in your head by getting into someone else's.

It also makes sense that it's reading, and not TV, that helps. TV is filled with ads for things you don't have, possibly leading to the boo-hoos. Reading doesn't have that drawback: no product placement, no beautiful 20-somethings, nowhere to place your credit-card order, just engaging stories. Like drinking without the hangover, reading allows you a break with no side effects. It could provide us all with that beautiful male ability to be in the world without being swallowed up by it.

And it's not necessarily that goopy "Chicken Soup for the Soul"-type thing you should be reading. One woman who took the bibliotherapy cure was quoted in Salon as saying, "I really enjoyed this book because it was about somebody who was more miserable than I was." This medical breakthrough could amount to nothing more than misery loving company.

Unlike the cures that cost a wad of money, bibliotherapy won't be coming to America soon, Salon says, but knowing the principle, who needs the middleman? If you can get yourself to the pharmacy, you could get yourself to the library, bookstore, movie theater or even a friend's house to hear their miserable stories, maybe not for the giant cases of the blues but for the little ones.

And finally my own theory is validated by doctors: Running away from your problems really is the answer.

Now if they can find a way for book writers to get paid like shrinks, I'll never have to read to cheer up again.


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