Behold a Killer Smiling With a Sad Clown

Robin Williams died yesterday.

Early reports seem to indicate that Mr. Williams took his life after battling severe depression. If you’ve ever watched him, he was an explosion of comic energy. He was always on. Watching him in interviews was exhausting, but thrilling, because he was funny and summoned energy to make improvisational connections that left you a little breathless. But he wasn’t just a comic, he was a very accomplished actor. Nominated for three Academy Awards, he won one for his work in Good Will Hunting.

But forget the actor angle; he was a human being. Never met the guy and I’m not starstruck by him, but his apparent suicide disturbs me. There was a darker side, apparently, to his talent. He battled with drug and alcohol addiction for years and fought off relapse. What is it about actors and comics regarding the “source” of their material? As with some, Mr. Williams seemed to have vast reservoirs of pain that fueled his genius and tormented him.

Over three weeks ago, Williams posted a photo of himself with a monkey perched on his shoulder. In light of yesterday’s revelations about his suicide, the photo is absolutely chilling.

Now the monkey is just a monkey. I get that. But why does this photo seem so symbolic to me? Robin Williams wistfully smiles into a horizon while a creature with a mischievous grin sits near his ear. You think I’m reading into things a bit, perhaps? Check out this link to a list of comics that illustrate a person’s harrowing ordeal with Depression. The monkey friend takes on a sinister feel in light of what Mr. Williams suffered. Is the monkey pic symbolic of what Robin Williams lived with every day? Is Depression like that monkey — sitting on a person’s shoulder whispering lies and summoning thoughts of failure and regret to harass a tortured soul? Do Depression and Suicide smile as they pursue their victims?

I think yes.

The reason this story captures my attention is that there are untold numbers of people who are shuffling through life right now battling Depression and Suicide every single day. No one will know their names or even that they suffer. They work with us. They are our neighbors, lovers, and friends. Some of us are the ones who fight it every day.

Troubles of mind and torments of soul are tough to comprehend and truly understand. The mind is a world of mist and fog where Depression and Suicide hunt their victims. We are much more sympathetic to the person diagnosed with cancer, heart disease, or other physical malady, though. Why? We can see the issue. Obviously, colostomy bags, breathing machines, blood transfusions, and the like are stark pictures of something wrong with a person. We can trace the suffering to a source, or what we would be comfortable with as a source. There is pain and its origins are something physically wrong with the body.

The mind or soul? Not so. Arguably, the maladies that trouble the mind may far exceed the broken conditions of the physical body, but for someone who doesn’t suffer in that way, true understanding and sympathy is difficult. When someone we love can’t shake thoughts of loneliness and isolation, many of us see our friend’s expression of despair as an attack instead of expression of mental injury. Those of us who see our friend as a “complainer” or someone “who needs to grow up and get over it” are missing something. Why do humans do what they do and say what they say? The ambiguity of intention, thought, and expression prompts us to pause before opening our heart to those who are suffering all around us. We choose to wait it out.

“Is she serious or is she trying to hurt me?”

“Why can’t he just move past it?”

Robin Williams and his ordeal expose the murderous pair of Depression and Suicide. For the rest of us, the duo operate in secret and with the help of the ignorant. How many times have I given my lips over to be used by Depression, Suicide, Despair, and the Rest of the Murderous Lot to do their bidding? How many times have I “encouraged” my friend only to have Depression advance on his mind by filling him with thoughts that no one understands him? I shudder to think of the times I have led my friend to feel that something is irreparably wrong with him.

“Snap out of it.”

“Buck up.”

“How long are you going to keep this up?”

I’m not trying to insinuate that Mr. Williams’s family could have done something differently or compound their grief (as if they would read this anyway). What I’m getting at is a general dismissive attitude that myself and many others have toward people fighting depression. Instead of just having a listening ear, many times I try to fix other people’s problems. Maybe there’s a better way.

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The Cynic’s Paradise

I don’t do political posts here, unless it is politics in the broadest sense. Perhaps, some comment on the overall framework of the polis and our general slide to oblivion, but nothing that has not been said before. Besides, you can go to the legion of websites that capture the daily play-by-play of the perpetual power struggle. I just don’t care anymore.

I have no faith in politics. What a silly charade it all is.

I read somewhere once that those who look down on us from above laugh at our machinations. All of our empire building and wasted effort. All of the spent emotion and outrage. The cycle of domination, oppression, and response. The lies that support it all.

We really have no idea what we’re doing. Just winging it, I guess.

In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy brutally illustrates the State of War fused into our hearts. His primary antagonist is Judge Holden, a mysterious and probably supernatural figure who is very much like the devil of old; Holden draws a murderous band of mercenaries further and further into the outer darkness and entices them to embrace War in the most fundamental sense. Judge Holden blows upon the spark of evil present in the band of scalp hunters and they do unspeakable things to both savages and innocents. Holden’s Big Idea is that the embrace of the violent struggle of life is life most fully lived. Kill or be killed, and relish every minute. I think that McCarthy uses Judge Holden and the mercenaries to show how all of us really are when born into this world. If the average Joe or Jane had the power of the mercenary gang with no oversight, he or she would act mercilessly without restraint. This is Holden’s — the devil’s — paradise: a world where the strongest survive.

Why? Because in a world like that, the conflict never ends. If we all have designs on being King or Queen, then we cannot tolerate someone above us. For those with power, fortune, and skill, they can make a play to take out the King or Queen, and for those without, they can do their own thing when the King or Queen is away. So no one is ever satisfied. Those at the top fight to stay there, those at the bottom scheme to get to the top, and those who pretend they don’t care live as a ruler in their own mind.

Hell on earth.

And we have that now. The reason we don’t typically see the stark viciousness that you see in Blood Meridian is because in our day-to-day routine we lie to ourselves and one another to deal with living in a world like this. So, you get the bread and the circus and the drugs and the addictions and the damned insistence to refuse looking at what we do to each other. You would think that we would get tired of it by now, but we’ve been going strong now for quite a while. And because we are good at repeating the past and embracing failure, McCarthy’s point about our savagery in Blood Meridian seems to be well-taken.

But that is not all that McCarthy says.

His protagonist is the Kid: a simple and violent youngster who accompanies the mercenaries on their quest to gather Indian scalps. On the way, he notices that something is off with Judge Holden. The Kid is fascinated by Holden’s immense size, hairless skin, and baby-like face; he is troubled by the judge’s savage intelligence. Unlike the others, the Kid slowly realizes who Holden is, what he represents, and where he is leading the crew. Holden knows that something is different about the Kid too. His efforts to fan the flames of violence work marvelously with just about all of the mercenaries, but with the Kid, his propensity for violence decreases. Judge Holden soon sees the Kid as his enemy when he realizes that his efforts of “liberation” are resisted by the Kid and that the Kid’s internal Fire of War is being quenched.

In a world of violence and degradation where nearly everyone is floating on a murderous tide to oblivion, the Kid starts swimming against the current.

What’s my takeaway? That in a world of violence and oppression, supported by lies and manipulations, a minority — or one — can stand against it. Now this stand is much easier to make, if you think there is a world beyond this one. We have symbols of this: 9 months of labor before childbirth, a grueling marathon before ticker tape parade, a night of darkness before dawn.

In Judge Holden’s world, survival is THE primary goal and to be held onto at all costs; sacrifice is meaningless and worthless.

But what if Judge Holden is wrong? What if sacrifice is the way out of the cycle? Would you take a chance to escape this wheel of death by giving up what’s most precious to you? Would you forfeit your life here for something better, but unknown?

In the novel, the Kid meets a brutal end at the hands of the judge, but he doesn’t become what the judge wants him to become: he rejects the State of War. That is the victory. That is the silver lining. It’s not as sexy or obviously triumphant as leading a political party to victory, or storming a beach, or retrieving the launch codes. But the Kid’s victory is real and lasting. It can’t be subverted by the next political party or a more powerful army. It’s an internal transformation.

Now if you read Blood Meridian, the chances are strong to quite strong that you may walk away with the impression that McCarthy is preaching nihilism, and he may be; but I think that the narrative is ambiguous enough to allow for my hopeful interpretation.

As stated above, it’s easier to find hope in the Kid’s struggle if you believe that something happens after this life. What if there is a Reckoning in the cosmos as to what transpires here in this world? If that Reckoning is based on our most optimistic conception of Justice, then it would seem that following Judge Holden’s path could lead to some dire consequences.

If there is a Just Reckoning and a state of existence beyond this world, then the Kid made the right call.

 

 

 

 

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Smashing that Social Hamster Wheel

Pretty damning article, I’ll say. Kind-of like the con man admitting to you what he did to your bank account before spending the money, or the Wizard saving Dorothy, the tin man, and the scarecrow some time by coming clean with them on that yellow-brick road.

Ivy league education is a con for most people, i.e., people whose sole purpose is to aggregate wealth, be a social climber, or at the very least protect social position.

First, let me immunize myself from attack.

One, my critique reaches beyond base envy. Yes, envy lurks in the deep, dark recesses of pretty much every human heart. It would be silly to say that I was ‘above that.’ No one is above that. You know that feeling when someone to your right or left gets something (pay raise/recognition/the girl/the guy/the kid/the house/the second house/the sweet vacation/the new car/and on and on and on) that you desperately want. That sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that you’ve been overlooked/passed over/abandoned/etc. etc. etc. when someone else achieves or gains something of merit. Those feelings are there for me too, pal. No doubt. But I think squarely looking at the possibility that this condition exists in me prepares me to at least meet that mindset head on. In other words, the very fact that I recognize that envy is a possibility can make my mind a difficult environment in which it can operate, because most people should recognize that base envy and covetousness, i.e., fervent desire for what someone else has, is an ugly thing. Most people, if they are aware of it, don’t wear envy like a fashionable coat; rather, when detected, many throw it away like soiled garments. It’s deadly because it sneaks up on you. But for these thoughts and this short article, I know that the possibility of envy exists and because I don’t like what it does to my mind, I heavily discriminate against class-based reasons for supporting the author of the linked article. Or at least I try to.

Two, my alignment with the linked author goes beyond my sense of inferiority. Let’s just get that out of the way. My grades weren’t good enough to get into the Ivy Leagues, at least in part because I coasted for quite some time through high school and early college. When I started to actually care, I did great. But too little, too late. I went to non-IL schools and had an experience that William Deresiewicz writes about:

Religious collegeseven obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coastsoften do a much better job in that respect. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.

There is a small group of people who are “privileged” to go to IL schools. According to their own academic standards, very few people stack up. So since so many folks are “inferior” by Blue Blood metrics does that mean that Ivy League ideals and Aristocratic ethics may only be judged by the small minority of people to swim in those waters? Nope. Sometimes the outsider has the much better perspective.

Third, my sympathy with Mr. Deresiewicz’s claim does not spring forth from sour grapes or a bitter heart. Related to the first possible objection, but different in that while envy is fervent desire for the good fortune of another, bitterness is the toxic inability to “let go,” the poisonous perpetual notion of felt injustice without remedy. Envy is directed outward; bitterness seems to be more inward. “Turk, you would live it up and live life so as to protect your social position like these who go to these schools.” You’re damn right I would. I don’t blame the individuals who survive in that world. It is a dressed-up form of survival, but survival nonetheless. In fact, there is much to admire in the singleness of purpose, robust intellectualism, and arduous discipline that is essential to be at the top of the heap of this world. My immunization is simply that the end goal of the elite social climber is worthless. Everyone dies, including the blue bloods. They gather their wealth for people they don’t know. The position that an elite has cultivated, grown, and protected can be snatched from them at any time by another who is more cunning, disciplined, and ruthless. And like your father may have told you, ‘there is always someone better at what you think you’re best at.’ I don’t begrudge someone who gathers the wind.

So, all that to say, there is something very wrong about the ethics and values of the Best and Brightest among us. The elite institutions in our land promote upward mobility and Success. Ah, yes, but how do we define Success? In a system dedicated to education, “success” should be defined by the underlying purpose of the institution. So, for example . . .  a successful court system would be the correct and thorough resolution of disputes and administration of justice, a successful hospital would be good at healing the sick and injured and promoting future health, and a successful educational system would create a love of learning, a broad knowledge base, and basic tools for functioning in society through a trade or specialization.

Success in the Ivy Leagues and in Aristocratic circles is preoccupied with protecting status, influence, and wealth. You know what? This is nothing new. I guess my big objection that piggybacks off Mr. Deresiewicz’s argument is that so many schools want to model the Ivy League and its ethics. You’ve seen it with the simpering adulation and deference that grads of “lower” schools shower upon grads of Hahhvahd, Stanford, and the like, as well as the ridiculous hand-wringing when a lower school is dropped to an even-lower ranking in U. S. News and World Report. Why such slavish devotion to “our betters?”

As Mr. Deresiewicz writes, let’s not kid ourselves:

The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to.

….

This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be.

I don’t think anything can be done about the Ivy League institutions from the outside. It takes changed people to change a culture, so reform inside the Ivy Leagues is necessary, but probably would come from within. But those of us on the outside looking in can reject definitions of success that are focused solely on material gain or social position, and that fail to include the state of a person’s mind and the effects of our pursuits on others.

Better yet, those of us on the outside could start being happy about being an outsider and stop looking in.

 

 

 

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Is Chasing Our Dreams the Best We Can Hope For?

I recently saw A.I., Artificial Intelligence, a film by Steven Spielberg. It came out in 2001 or roundabouts, I think. Pretty interesting. It is a strange mix of PinocchioThe Wizard of Oz, and Blade Runner. Haley Joel Osment’s protagonist, David, is an android boy programmed to love. The movie is David’s quest to become “real.” Apparently, the film idea for A.I. came from Stanley Kubrick, but he died before bringing his vision for this movie to light. (He died in a mysterious time frame after Eyes Wide Shut — another film with bizarre imagery and esoteric meaning.)

A.I. definitely has something to say about the transcendence of love, the quest for fulfillment of purpose, and the ability for a created being (androids) to surpass their creators (humans); David and a race of evolved robots outlast their extinct human creators in the end. Due in large part (probably) to Stanley Kubrick’s influence on the project, numerous writers have peeled away the layers of the film and offered very compelling theories as to what Kubrick/Spielberg were trying to communicate. Here’s a pretty good sample: A.I. is a vision of the Oedipus complex with all of its accompanying tragedy, a fairy tale that champions Nietzsche’s “death of god,” a picture that explores humanity and dehumanization, and so on. But this is not an in-depth review.

So, let’s get that out-of-the-way. And let’s be clear: this is a powerful and well-crafted film. My issue is not with form or presentation — it’s with the presumptuous ideas that the art is communicating.

The idea that the creature can evolve or supplant its creator fills the film with a dark sense of emptiness and dread. David’s quest to become real is motivated by his desire to have his adopted human mother love him. He is created with the ability to love and he does so once his programming is activated. Despite what some say is a syrupy sweet ending, I think that his mission fails and he is rescued by an illusion at the end of the film. And I think that is Kubrick/Spielberg’s point: that David’s belief in the Blue Fairy (from the Pinocchio story read to him by his “mother”) is akin to a belief in a higher power: both of which lead nowhere and to no one. When David encounters his “creator,” Professor Hobby, he learns what his maker sought to discover in David:

Where would your self-motivated reasoning take you? To the logical conclusion: the Blue Fairy is part of the great human flaw to wish for things that don’t exist; or to the greatest single human gift: the ability to chase down our dreams? And that is something that no machine has ever done until you.

Crestfallen, David responds, “I thought I was one of a kind.”

Well, no, not really, David. Not in the hellish nightmare world of A.I. You are replaceable there. There is no transcendent love or purpose. ‘Well, turk, transcendent love or purpose is an illusion and Kubrick/Spielberg are trying to free your mind from silly superstitions.’ The problem to me with this idea is the arrogance of that position. Who’s to say there is nothing above us? How do we really know that?

Put aside a specific belief system and just consider the possibility that there is a higher consciousness or being that watches us like we watch ants. You know it probably happens that when we reach for the Raid to wipe out an ant colony on our back porch, there is some philosophical ‘professor’ ant standing on a garden hose summoning his ant brothers and sisters to free their little ant minds from the silly ideas of a higher order being and to endeavor to become Superants.

And then they all die. Because of the Raid.

Or imagine a group of dogs really considering an overthrow of humans. How far is that going to go? Not too far, I say.

But what if our “situation” is precisely like that? What if Nietzsche is just a brash little ant trying to convince his brethren to give up the god delusion? And if the universe is millions of years old (or billions and billions), which I think it is, the average 80 year human life span is kind-of similar to the ant’s 45 day-or-so life span. My point is: where do we get off? Who do we think we are?

And spare me the: ‘you don’t have any proof of any world beyond a material one.’ So what? I don’t play that rigged game. Everyone is expressing his or her faith all the time, regardless of official creed. All of us are short on conclusive proof, and we still cast our bets.

And Professor Hobby’s quote above is chilling, but doesn’t appear so at first glance. Read it again. No, go ahead, I’ll wait. The greatest single human gift is the ability to chase our dreams? Really? I don’t want to live in a lot of people’s dreams. And I’d like it if some humans weren’t so adept at pursuing their “dreams,” because their “dreams” create sadness and misery for the rest of us. Yes, MLK, Jr. had a dream. But so did Hitler. (Preemptive Godwin!!) Seriously, though, I would not consider the pursuit of our selfish desires to be The Big Deal for us humans. (Self-interest is the heart of the quote, but is camouflaged  by flowery rhetoric). A meth addict dreams of ways to continue getting his fix, a con artist is dreaming of ways to part you from your money, and on and on. “Do what thou wilt” seems to be the cause of our misery — not our greatest gift.

But that’s the heart of A.I., a movie worth watching. It’s the ideas it posits that need to be squarely looked at and scrapped.

Or at least thoughtfully questioned.

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Keeping the Hounds of Hell at Bay

Troubling stuff out of Houston, but light still shines in the dark places.

And it seems that anyone can play the hero, which provides hope for the rest of us.

Young Cassidy Stay recently had to grow up faster than she may have anticipated. Shot in the head by her murderous ex-uncle while he proceeded to brutally kill her family, she played dead and called 911 to warn authorities that the murderer was perhaps targeting other family members. Cassidy’s grandfather, Roger Lyon, said that Cassidy possibly saved 20 lives through her bravery.

The grandfather then recalled a conversation he had with Cassidy in the hospital, where the teenager told him that she felt like the angels of whom she has learned in Sunday school were with her Wednesday, putting their hands on her mouth and whispering her to stay still. ‘I was quiet when I needed to be quiet,’ Lyon quoted her as saying.

Why does it seem that the forces of hell melt at the weakest and most overlooked amongst us? What is it about the mundane, the seemingly ordinary, the apparently weak that seems to stop the advance of the fearsome Barghest and Black Shuck? I don’t mean to diminish Cassidy Stay or intimate that she is ordinary. Clearly, she is not. But she appears so. She is a 15-year-old girl who likes Harry Potter. She sold jewelry online with her mom. She is a slight, fair-skinned, bright-faced teenager with a sunny smile. And yet she had to endure an assault from Death that many of us do not. Many of us fill our mind with thoughts and ambitions to keep the nagging thoughts of meeting Death at bay. We all know that we have to meet the end eventually, but we push those troublesome thoughts away and crowd ourselves with vanity. But she wrestled with a form of Death that was seeking to collect early and violently within her family walls.

She faced Death operating through Ronald Lee Haskell, himself possessed with rage at his broken marriage and envy of Cassidy’s stable home. The young teen encountered her ex-uncle, a heavyset men with empty eyes, burning orange beard, and a Viking brutality. And while Death claimed Cassidy’s parents and siblings, she herself was spared. How? The bullet purposed to end her life grazed her skull.

As is the case with true strength in this world, Cassidy was overlooked by the murderer as he continued his evil quest.

But his quest came to an end through her.

“The teen called 911, surrounded by her dead and dying family members, to tell police her 33-year-old uncle by marriage was enroute to kill her grandparents at their Spring, Texas home.”

His rampage was ended in a dramatic standoff with police where he eventually surrendered and fell to his knees.

Clearly, her ex-uncle was animated by dark thoughts, the veritable Hounds of Hell.

But Cassidy was animated too. By something far greater.

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Lebron and the Walkabout

Big news today: Lebron’s going back home to Cleveland.

I know, I know. Sometimes he can be a little too dramatic. But, really, so what? And hating on Miami fandom is pretty funny.Today, Cleveland may have just grown its fanbase with folks from South Beach.

He’s taking his talents back home and I love it. It’s a good move for him. I’m not really a Lebron fan at all, but I like his motivation to return. He’s not going to NY or Chicago — teams that have something to work with. He’s going back to the Cavaliers, a team that mustered 33 wins last season and ranked 10th in the weak sauce Eastern Conference.

I’m sure a hefty contract will make being on a bad team easier. But this isn’t ALL about money. I mean this is Lebron. Any team with cap room is going to break the bank for him. He is 29 with two titles under his belt already. He could have gone to other teams, but he chose to return to his roots.

He says, “I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver.” That’s good, because he might be waiting awhile for his next ring. But his desire seems to be for more than a title: “I feel my calling here goes above basketball.” Given the Cavs current roster, I don’t think he is blowing smoke. This wasn’t motivated merely by a desire “to win now.” He mentions that he wants to be an inspiration to youngsters in that community and to cultivate pride in the Cleveland area. When an athlete embraces a community instead of using his privilege for just increasing his bottom line or fame, then perhaps, sport can transcend from a mere game to a Purpose. Even without another title, Lebron’s play in Cleveland can make a greater impact on the lives of others than if he were to win five more titles as a mercenary ballplayer.

Plus, his full-circle travel home has a poetic ring to it. Sometimes all of our travels take us back to where we belong. Some male Aborigines go on a “walkabout,” or ritual journey into the wilderness  to complete the transition from adolescence to adulthood. This journey usually entails a move away from civilization to discover or rediscover a lost purpose or meaning. (Now the walkabout can include following “songlines,” which is an animist belief unrelated to my main point.) It seems that many people, though, take steps that seemingly go nowhere and lead to isolation. Or sometimes folks travel a long way merely to find themselves at a way station to a more permanent place. This trek that seems meaningless and empty can lead to discovery of something greater than yourself and eventually lead back to the place that you belong.

I know. It’s hard to sell that Lebron’s move to Miami, with all of its glitz, glamour, and scantily clad people, as a place bereft of soul and far-removed from civilization. But then again, maybe not.

The point is that the “wilderness trek” is one of mind. In this culture, a walkabout can take place in a desert valley or sprawling metropolis. For Lebron, perhaps, Miami was a journey of self-discovery (and some accomplishment), but clearly not his home.

But he’s going home now. And good for him. For those of us still in the wilderness, we feel his relief.

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