I Call Bravo Sierra

Common sense isn't very common.

Archive for the ‘opinion’ Category

On Friendship, Part 3

Posted by Keen Observer on July 25, 2014

I was having a discussion with my best friend some days ago, in which she was engaging in some of her trademark obsessive behaviour, while simultaneously fretting about being in this obsessive mode.  This is something I have experienced with her on previous occasions, and it’s not something that bothers me beyond the fact of disliking that she tortures herself like that.  In fact, during this iteration of obsession, I realised a few things:

  1. I like listening to her obsess about things (which may surprise her).
  2. I like being the person to whom she feels she can obsess about these things (which shouldn’t).
  3. I like that these interactions are non-judgemental and entirely reciprocal (she takes her turns absorbing my own outpourings).
    • With the proviso that sometimes judgement is necessary, and is performed in both directions as appropriate.
  4. The connection we have/share is so profoundly deep that any other concepts that do not support these statements are entirely unthinkable.

The last item was kind of the key one in my moment of “Eureka!”  During our conversation, I noted it thusly (with improvements):

You are so much a part of my life, that when you ‘go off the deep end’ [as she put it], I just stand and let it wash over me, the rock on the beach sitting immobile and stable, as the stormy waves crash around it.  I observe and analyse and advise, but ultimately, I am apart from it in such a way that lets me fully accept the action of your storm waves without being drowned by them.  And at the same time, I provide an outlet for you that isn’t damaged by the force of the storm.  But the key is that you and I have such a deep, powerful connection that I can no more turn away from your rage or insanity [her term] or sadness than I can my own.  And so, I exist, and you exist, and we complement and support each other.  Profoundly.

As these words came out of me, I realised them for essential truth.  Or Truth.  I thought on this for some time after and realised that as much as I see myself as her rock, I equally know with certainty that she is mine (and I have also waxed poetical in this vein).  She provides a stable barycentre about which I may revolve, or the heavy storm anchor that keeps my fragile hull from being smashed to flinders, as I am tempest-toss’d by the hurricane of my emotions.  And I am confident in this relationship to the marrow of my bones.  I know her, and she knows me, in profound and complete ways.  We know the other’s flaws, and they don’t matter in the least.  We don’t love each other in spite of those flaws; we just love each other, flaws and all, because those flaws are part of makes us who we are, and we understand this intrinsically.

Though the metaphorical rock acts as an impervious observer to the stormy ocean, in another, very real sense, the solitary rock is enveloped by the calmed ocean, an ocean that surrounds and just…is.  An ocean that is accepting and supportive and tranquil and…there, gently reminding the rock that it is never, ever alone.  The ocean’s presence ebbs and flows, as these things do, but the constant contact between water and basalt echoes how one soul brushes up against and soothes the other, their presence a universal constant.

And as all of these thoughts passed through me, I realised another Truth:  I have little doubt that there are people out there who have never–nor will they ever–have so deep and honest a friendship.  These people I pity with all the strength I can muster, for I have been in that state and am indescribably glad to have escaped it.  Of all the things that exist in my life at this time, she is currently what makes me feel the luckiest, the most valued, the most understood, the most appreciated, the most…well, the list goes on.  I’ve finally gotten over the dazed bafflement at having so wonderful and awesome a friend, but the wonder and awe of her remain.  I have even been so lucky as to have developed other close friendships that I value highly as well, but she’s definitely special, and I believe she has been instrumental in me being able to see and accept these other friendships, to have given me the ability to once again let others see who I truly am.  To risk.

She has been such an incredible gift to me, that I can’t really imagine that life is possible in her absence.   My best friend centres me, stabilises me, gentles me, encourages me beyond my limits.  The reality–the solidity–of the connection we share grounds me so perfectly, that I can no longer feel that I am without also the parallel of she is palpably within me.  I could no more turn against her or hurt her than I can harm myself, because to hurt her would be to hurt myself.  And because of how she gives and supports and loves in return, I know the same holds for her.  The connection is truly soul-to-soul.

And to me, that is the nature of a perfect, true friendship…or as close to it as makes no difference.

Posted in general, life, love, opinion, personal | Comments Off on On Friendship, Part 3

Remembrance of Things Past…

Posted by Keen Observer on November 11, 2013

Nothing to do with anything in this post but the title, but I remember reading some of the above bit of painful prose in the original French. I don’t remember much about it, but I remember reading it, and only vaguely how some things can spawn an “involuntary memory”. The original title is more along the lines of “In Search of Lost Time”, but English editors of French works can be a little pompous and can feel the need to change authorial intent. I was never a fan of Proust, but that little kernel of truth is quite profound, as it relates strongly to interconnectedness.

That aside…

Today was Remembrance Day in Canada and the Commonwealth, and marked in different ways in other countries. Canada uses the day–though not a national, public holiday–to honour its fallen heroes, its war dead, a tradition dating back to the end of World War I. The poppies come out about two weeks before the day. Generally, at no other time during the year is there any mention of such things in the “popular” press, and come the 12th, the poppies disappear from the talking heads on television, and also the public consciousness.

There has been some talk in recent years of a so-called “white” poppy, that’s intended to represent peace, as though the red poppies (there are other colours?) are meant to honour war and killing. People who would believe this tripe are ignorant, stupid, or misled. Or all three. People who think that another type of poppy is needed have no idea what a “Remembrance” poppy represents, and they probably don’t care to learn, either.

War is hell. Period. Some have said it’s the failure of diplomacy, which is probably true enough, but diplomacy is often used just as another military manoeuvre, and is often the opening salvo in the war, or the base causus belli. And sometimes, diplomacy is just another way of saying, “Please turn around, so I can stab you in the back.” Friends close, enemies closer. There are people/entities/national actors in the world with whom diplomacy is impossible, because they are not rational actors. With groups like those, war of some type is inevitable, and it’s harder to fight off, both because they are not rational actors, and because we often give them the means to destroy us.

War is hell. It has a huge cost, beyond military budgets and economic/environmental damage. War kills generations, whether the war is “won” or not. War is a horrible, horrible thing and should be avoided–unless it can’t be. And if it can’t be, that war should be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible, to ensure that your side doesn’t bear the cost of it any more than it has to. It should be as nasty, brutish, and short as possible, and preferably destroy your enemy’s ability to make war again for a very long time. People who have studied war’s history, and the history of wars, understand this, more so if they have military experience. Politicians, as a rule, do not, and they are often eager to increase the cost of a war that they do not personally have to pay.

War veterans understand the hellish nature of war at a bone-deep level we “normal” people can’t possibly understand, and for this we should be grateful, because it means that we have not experienced it. And we “normals” have trouble understanding why anyone would volunteer to go out and kill or die to serve a political or necessary end for people they know nothing about. But they do, and they die. It is this that the poppies represent: their sacrifice, not for a glorification of war. The poem “In Flanders Fields” encapsulated this fairly well, which is why it has stood the test of time. They died, that others might live. They died, that those who started unnecessary wars might be defeated in their goals. They died, that evil might be fought to a standstill and destroyed. They died, that people might say egregiously-stupid things about poppies without being imprisoned. They died, and we live. They died, and we wear poppies once a year.

There is a problem, though, in that as we get further away from the global wars of the past, the memories around them fade. And schools slowly stop teaching about the true causes and costs of war. And the sacrifices of the honoured fallen are gradually pushed to the side, so that generations of people grow up not understanding what happened in the past. Memories fade, and people stop seeing the warning signs of oncoming global conflict, leaving us unprepared in the face of existential threats. Memories fade, and people stop appreciating the freedoms they take for granted every single day, freedoms bought with the blood of young generations, something that today’s young generations don’t want to confront. And they fail to see that the price of those freedoms is eternal vigilance, because there is always someone out there who wants to restrict your freedoms, to control your lives and thoughts. Honouring and supporting a military that is the only bulwark against external threats of that type is about the least you can do. And the simplest way to do that is to wear a red poppy on the left side of your chest for a couple weeks around Hallowe’en. If you feel particularly punchy, you can go for a yellow ribbon as a year-round display. But we must not forget. Or there might come a time when we need the help of the warriors to protect us, but they are not there, and this time, it is we who will die, but there will be no one to remember us.

Posted in general, life, opinion, personal, poetry, politics, stupidity, Writing | Comments Off on Remembrance of Things Past…

Sex Workers’ Rights Day (Friday the 13th)

Posted by Keen Observer on September 16, 2013

Sex work is work, as they say, and sex worker rights are human rights. Per the link below, I’m one who comes at this from the libertarian side, the equal-treatment-under-the-law side, the women-have-the-right-to-choose-how-their-bodies-are-used side, the not-seeing-sex-work-as-immoral side, and the not-treating-working-girls-like-pieces-of-shit side. For the record, I’ve never patronised a sex worker (heh…did you see what I did there?), but trying to make/keep this consensual activity criminal is beyond stupid.

http://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/friday-the-13th-again/
(Her blog is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended, and some is NSFW.)

Read her stuff. Maggie McNeill–a retired escort–articulates things I could never find the words for and describes things far outside of my experience. But society treating sex workers as pariahs is why Robert Pickton got away with murdering women–people who were wives, sisters, daughters–for as long as he did, and why other murderers, abusers, and rapists continue to do. And this is in Canada, a country where prostitution is itself not illegal. I mean, listen to the news: recently, two women were killed in Vancouver almost next door to each other. “High-risk lifestyle” is media/police code for “she’s just a whore”, where missing or murdered women are concerned. More often than not, it even means “drug-addled whore.” That they were connected to sex work should never have made it into the news reports, because at this point in time, it’s fucking irrelevant–and perhaps never relevant. Treat murdered/missing women as murdered/missing women, in the press and elsewhere, and maybe violence against women will decrease. That they were escorts may be a relevant line of investigation, but why publicise it or change how you approach the case?

If you haven’t thought about things like this before, read her well-written blog (she is intelligent, articulate, and thoughtful, though I don’t always agree with her), and you will. However, you might end up feeling a bit gob-smacked from time to time at the things you’ll learn, especially about how whores in America are treated, and how they’re trying to export their misguided morality and control-freak tendencies worldwide, where it’s just not wanted. And you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that goes on around the world.

I stole someone's picture.

“Nice pussy you have. Shame if something happened to it.”

You may be shocked at how most feminist groups, who should be staunch allies of fully-sexually-actualised, independent businesswomen, routinely fight against efforts to humanise (read, decriminalise) sex work/workers: a woman is allowed to choose, as long as it’s not choosing to take money for sex. Slut it up and fuck whomever you want, just don’t take cash money for it.

So, though this post is now going up a few days late, I don’t think it hurts to remind people that sex workers are people too. Porn stars have sex with multiple partners for money, and they don’t face nearly the same stigmatisation as someone doing a straight-up financial transaction for sex. They also don’t get arrested for their activities; some are lauded and some run for political office. And as Maggie has pointed out a time or two, cops aren’t smart enough to differentiate between hookers and non-hooker females. In some places just having more than a few condoms in your purse is enough to get you nicked, and that’s utterly ridiculous. Other stories are more harrowing, and all are because of demonisation of sex workers and the illegality of sex work in many jurisdictions. Strangely, however, most people can’t tell sex workers apart from “regular” women: they look just like everyone else. And they are just like everyone else: trying to make a living with their native skills.

Posted in American, Canadian, general, life, news & journalism, opinion, politics, religion, stupidity, Uncategorized, World | 1 Comment »

Guns are tools

Posted by Keen Observer on January 13, 2013

Sandy Hook was a horrible, horrible thing. No child or its parents should have to suffer through what those people did. At least one teacher died a hero, not knowing if her efforts to protect her charges would be successful. People the world over could stand to emulate her behaviour.

Utoya was a horrible, horrible thing. No child or parent should have to suffer through what those people did. Premeditated murder of dozens of people not known to the shooter, while security forces were mobilised over a devastating bomb used as a mere distraction, is nothing more than psychopathy.

Both of these horrific crimes were perpetrated on innocent children for the most part. Both were perpetrated in so-called “gun free” zones, either by designation or de facto. The body count was much higher in Utoya, at least in part because the shooter wanted to kill as many people as possible In Sandy Hook, I’m not sure that was his goal. What was semi-ironic in this to me is that Utoya is in Norway, a country that has gun-control restrictions at least as severe as in Canada, and perhaps more so. Yet the shooter still managed to end up quite well-armed.

One thing that immediately leaps to my attention in both cases is how within hours, and wholly expectedly, the cries began to be raised before the bodies were even cold (or counted): Ban guns; Restrict Guns; Register Guns. In Norway, not much can be done, given the state if its laws. In the US, the semi-regular cries to make responsible firearms owners into criminals have taken on a fever pitch. Echoes of it appear in Canada, especially with the federal government recently striking down the legal requirement to register long guns that have been legally purchased.

The primary difference between gun-control arguments waged in the US and gun-control arguments waged pretty much anywhere else is this simple little sentence attached to their constitution via the amendment process:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

That’s it. The sum total of Amendment II to the US constitution, and it’s been argued over since it was written down. To me it looks pretty clear: “…shall not be infringed.” People mostly seem to argue over the inclusion of the Militia into this clause, but to me, based on the structure, it’s only there as a preamble and justification for allowing unrestricted access of the people to arms. Any kind of arms, since there is literally no restriction to this element. Though a howitzer would probably be pretty awkward to carry around with you. In fact, my reading posits that the only constitutionally-valid option available to the Americans is registration and licensing. That’s it. And Amendment X already has allowed that in place on a state-by-state basis, if so desired. And just as a reference, the state of Vermont has the fewest gun laws of any state in the Union (including Texas), and it also has the third-lowest total crime rate. The only law they seem to have is a “must-issue” law, in that if someone asks to be issued a permit for ownership or carrying, one must be issued to them.

Now, it is possible that Americans would genuinely want to restrict this stuff constitutionally. That’s fine. There is a process in place since the country’s founding to amend the constitution. Knock yourself out. But until then, it seems to me that the hue and cry being raised is all about increasing political capital and/or statist control, and not about safety or the children. Because you see, there is little to correlate increased gun ownership with increased violence, and almost nothing to correlate it to mass shootings on any sort of realistic basis (I wish I could remember where, but I saw one statistic that showed Canada had a higher rate of school shootings than the US on a per-capita basis). I’ve seen a couple of recent suggestions, in fact, that gun violence correlates pretty well to drug trafficking more than anything else, and can be inversely correlated to the removal of lead from paint and gasoline. A different study correlates an inverse relationship between increasing gun ownership and decreasing murder rates in the US, using the FBI’s own statistics.

But among all the various studies, what it comes down to–in my not-so-humble opinion–is people. People will kill. People will kill (if they’re of a mind to) using whatever tools are available to them. Guns are handy, but so are chemical explosives or cars or propane tanks or edged weapons. Japan or China has had about eighteen separate mass killings with edged weapons in the last five or ten years (don’t remember that source today, either). The worst was about eight people killed with a meat cleaver. The truth of the matter is, you can’t prevent psychotics or sociopaths from killing…at least, not until they expose themselves, and then dang it if you don’t wish you were carrying that day.

There were about a dozen mass killings in the US last year. Twelve people showed how fucked-up nuts they were. Out of a population of some 350 million. To my recollection, only Sandy Hook got this kind of coverage or reaction. And there were about 9000 non-justified gun homicides in 2011 (based on FBI stats and rounded off). So, because of these people, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth to abrogate the constitutional rights of the other 349,990,988 people (roughly), or else “you just don’t care about the children, you monster!”

In Canada, some firearms laws have been on the books since about 1935, because we have no such constitutional protections. A recent study by an ER doctor, Cailin Langmann, showed an actual inverse correlation between the enacting of the three main stages of Canadian fireamrs laws and crime rates. The more restrictions put in place, the worse crime gets. Anecdotal evidence from other places shows similar results, in that crime almost disappeared in a Georgia town after a law was passed to require gun ownership by the head of household. The states in the US with the most restrictions–Illinois and California–are also the most violent states. But you won’t generally hear this sort of thing in the “popular” news media, because it doesn’t fit the narrative: “Gun Ownership is Evil!” In fact the news article I read about this in the National Post ridiculed the results as being suspect, because Dr Langmann is a known supporter of gun ownership…without noticing the irony that they said nothing about the contrary position being held by an organisation dedicated to ending personal gun ownership.

I wish that I owned a few weapons some days, but I’m not going to, not in this climate. Even though the long-gun registry has been destroyed (fuck you, Quebec), just applying for and getting a Possession and Acquisition Certificate (PAC) surrenders rights to the state that ought not to be surrenderable. Even if I didn’t buy a weapon after acquiring the PAC, the state now has the right to enter my home for any or no reason at all and search the fuck out of it…just in case I store a bullet next to a gun, or some bullshit. The laws are incredibly restrictive and do nothing for anyone. And I don’t want to deal with that. And then I’d always have to worry about using such a weapon to defend myself in my home against an intruder. There have been too many cases of people doing that and getting arrested for it, which is absurdly wrong. If I don’t have the right to defend myself by whatever means necessary, then I have no rights at all. And as some others have pointed out, that right was enshrined in the Diefenbaker Bill of Rights (passed in the early 1960s), and it has never been contradicted in law. However, it seems that the courts need a specific law to hold their hands and explain things to them, so the sooner a Castle Doctrine is enshrined in law, the happier I’ll be. But the registry itself should be a warning to Americans: it just won’t work. Registered firearms kill people all the time. But most handgun murders in Canada aren’t with registered weapons, because, you know, criminals don’t register their fucking guns! And though it’s easy to be accused of Godwinism in any argument, the comparison with Nazi Germany is valid in this case, because they instituted gun-ownership restrictions on the Jewish population. See how that worked out?

Beyond the hysteria of the gun-control crowd, it boils down to this: firearms are tools, nothing more. A weapon is inert and useless, until it is wielded, and it must be wielded by conscious act. It doesn’t matter if it’s a gun or a knife or a bomb or a fucking baseball bat or a garden trowel. It just lies there until someone picks it up and uses it. Guns are especially inert, because not only does the weapon have to be acquired, it has to be loaded with ammunition that also has to be acquired, aimed, and a trigger pulled. And you have to hit what you’re aiming at, which may be dozens of feet away. To me, the only sane response to crazy people on a rampage is not to be helpless before them, not to be out-gunned by them, and not to let the state make us all into victims by preventing that and preventing preservational self-defence. Because a gun in your hand can be an amazing equaliser, and for an assailant not to know who is armed and who is not makes them less likely to attack randomly. Psychopaths will still be psychopaths, but a rampage is a lot easier to stop when someone besides the shooter is armed. And that’s another key point to remember: “When seconds count, the police are just minutes away.” Police aren’t a preventative measure. They are there to clean up afterwards, and in some cases cause the problems (but that’s a different rant).

So let’s do away with the hand-wringing and pearl clutching and the “won’t someone think about the children”-ing. I used to hate the phrase when I was younger, but you really can’t argue with it: guns don’t kill people; people kill people. But you just can’t seem to argue that proposition with the gun-control crowd. Because, “you’re an evil child-killer, you monster!” You can’t reason with the unreasonable, and you can’t argue someone out of a position they weren’t argued into in the first place. But hysteria serves no one, and I really wish it would stop.

Posted in American, Canadian, news & journalism, opinion, politics, stupidity | Comments Off on Guns are tools

Memory

Posted by Keen Observer on November 12, 2012

Memory:  personal memory, institutional memory, corporate memory, cultural memory, tribal memory.  These are the types of memories that living beings tend to be aware of, even if perhaps not all the time or in a consistent way.  But they are there.  I hope I don’t need to go into details on them, so I won’t.

Most of these—if not all—were consistently shared between individuals and generations in a largely oral tradition in times earlier than this.  Histories and fables, facts and survival/prosperity tips, and other such similar things were handed down to the general knowledge base or to specific, “worthy”, recipients.  Because of the way memory works, sometimes knowledge was lost, and sometimes less-valuable knowledge was discarded if favour of something better or more important.  This is evolution of a sort.

However, the advent of modern technology changed that somewhat.  It started gradually, but it eventually became the way that technology displaced the mostly-oral tradition, and it was thought to be progress or “better”.  One could argue that this change started with writing and tablets, before moving on to scrolls, but even in those cultures where these things arose, there would have been a significant majority of any population for whom this technology was out of reach, and thus would have had to rely on continuing the oral tradition.  These simple forms of technology were all there were for centuries, although as time went on, larger (though still very minor) percentages of the various populations would have acquired the use of these technologies.  It could even be argued that in some societies, the populace were deliberately kept ignorant to keep them under the control of their overlords.  I’m looking largely at feudal Europe, here, especially the iron control of the Church.  Countries like China and India and Japan had better literacy rates at the same time, I believe, even if there were entrenched class systems.

A seriously-significant piece of technology changed Europe (and the world) permanently in the middle of the last millennium:  movable type and the Gutenberg press.  In addition to aiding in the relatively rapid dissemination of knowledge to all and sundry, it had an additional effect on the human use of memory.  It started to become less necessary for people to remember things themselves, or similarly for the various groups of people outlined above to retain and pass along acquired or historical knowledge.

Jump ahead a couple hundred years to the present day, and that trend has almost reached its conclusion:  few  people or organisations remember any more than they absolutely have to to get by in life or business/whatever.  The word “memory” is not used as it was in the past, except in rare instances.  In fact, it is almost ubiquitous in its usage as a technological construct in the form of computer memory (RAM) or less correctly as storage (hard drives, thumb drives, optical media, and the like).  If you asked a random person on the street, “How’s your memory?”, you’re about as likely to get the answer in gigabytes as you are to hear that he’s been having a harder time remembering names lately.  We rely insanely heavily on other things to do our remembering for us:  books, journals, computers, disks, libraries, corporate manuals, legal codes, and so on.  And because other things do the heavy lifting for us, we no longer have to do it ourselves.  It’s almost become that a person with a good memory is considered freakish, it’s so bad.

Our memory “muscles” atrophy from disuse, and it becomes harder and harder to remember things.  When I  was younger, I prided myself on my memory.   It wasn’t eidetic (to my chagrin), but it was pretty good.  There were times when I felt I was just a hair’s breadth away from being able to visualise perfectly a page which I had read, to be able to pull out of that page the specific phrase I was attempting to recall.  Frustrating.  But since I started to rely on other things to remember that which I needed to remember, the less my memory itself was used, a gradual trend over the past couple of decades.  And on top of that, the older I get, the harder I have to work to remember things I should still know, and it becomes harder to retain new information that I am learning or need to know.   And this annoys the crap out of me at many levels.

I see this trend away from using one’s own memory as something occurring society-wide, on a fundamental basis, and I don’t think this is a good thing.  I also think I see that the pace of it is increasing, with increasing amounts of technology being used in the classroom as though it’s a good thing.  Children are being encouraged and taught to rely on machines to remember stuff for them.  Smartphones (e.g., with their memo and calendar functions) and thumb drives are ubiquitous.  Even diaries have a state of impermanence, being stored on media that can easily be destroyed in ways that written hardcopy cannot.  I think—and this is just my opinion—that continuing on this path is not only detrimental to people and society, but it is actively contributing to society’s downfall.  People that don’t remember things on their own will not be able to react to problems quickly; they will not be able to adapt and overcome, if they must continually stop to check something on their phones or look something up on the Internet.  This is a sort of recipe for disaster, if you’ll pardon the hyperbole, because we must as a society be smarter than those who would wish to destroy us, if we wish to survive.  It also has the effect of reducing the candidate pool for highly-technical (or other) jobs that require that sort of mental flexibility and awareness.  This does not leave me exactly hopeful for the continued survival of our society.

Just some thoughts about memory.  And right on a thousand words, too.

Posted in computers, general, life, opinion, science, stupidity, technology | Comments Off on Memory

Deadly sins….

Posted by Keen Observer on July 21, 2012

[NOTE:  I started writing this in May, and I finished it in July.  The disconnect between what I thought I was writing about then versus now has gotten fairly significant. Hopefully, I will be able to remember what my point was before finish it.]

I was thinking about this a little over the past couple of weeks, but I’ve finally managed to get some time to put my thoughts down.  It really isn’t all the sins.  I was primarily reflecting on Envy.  (When you’re talking of the Seven Deadly Sins, they must be capitalised–so one does not mistake them for ordinary sins, I suppose.)

The Old Testament version of it would be “covetousness” or some such.  “Thou shalt not covet…” etc etc.  With greed or lust in your heart, it’s sinful to want what is not yours by right.  In modern usage, this has become somewhat diluted, I think.  What’s more, though:  Envy and Jealousy have become largely interchangeable.  In my view this is not correct:  I don’t think that these two words represent (in the modern sense) the same thing at all.

To me–and you may disagree–these are different things.  I’ll not go into much detail, but the primary difference is fear versus desire.  If you envy someone, you want what they have.  If you are jealous, you fear to lose what you have (if you do, in fact, have it, and it’s not some chimera of your imagination).  Jealousy is poison, whereas Envy need not be.  Being envious can simply mean that you wistfully wish things were different.  Being jealous is likely to turn you into a twat, if you aren’t already.  Jealousy is what leads to spousal battery, stalking, and other such social ills.  Envy can be negative, but I don’t think there’s anything positive about Jealousy–with the possible exception of being able to learn about your own reactions to it and making yourself into a better person as a result.  Envy is much more likely to result in self-improvement, if you decide that such improvements can result in obtaining that which you envy (e.g., being a better employee to get that bonus or raise or new position).

Perhaps the most insidious thing about Jealousy, in my opinion, is that people suffering from it as a rule do not understand either that they suffer from it or that it is damaging.  They are blind to it and its effects, both on them or on others.  And because of that, otherwise rational people become raving lunatics.  In my case the worst thing I generally do is say exceedingly stupid things, either verbally or on paper (virtual or otherwise), but I eventually come to my senses.  But I know that in my case the Jealousy is the fear-of-loss type, even when the loss is a foregone conclusion.  I don’t like myself when I get like that, but I have yet to be able to figure it out soon enough to stop it from happening.  However, because I can recognise it, I’ve also learned to stop spouting off a lot quicker than I have in past.  Unfortunately, that’s still after the damage has been done.

Given that it is now several months since I started writing this, I have to guess a little at what set me down this path.  I think it had something to do with a disagreement with the ex over what seemed fair in terms of post-sale arrangements with our soon-to-be-former house.  We had had an agreement that would have resulted in me gaining a slight edge in the equity percentage, but I found out that me having paid extra resulted in  me solely being poorer, since the mortgage penalties completely erased almost a year of equity in the house.  I tell you, I sure as fuck felt like a chump, since I had already been riding close to the edge financially as a result of needing to replace the basement floor and paying my half of it, and possibly a little more.  Her view on things seemed to be portraying her as a victim of something I perpetrated, as though I forced her into buying the house or to pay more because her income was 50% greater than mine.  Even writing about it now, it still gets my ire up.

At any rate, something in my kinda finally snapped, and I realised that the ex was a lot more selfish than I had thought she was, and that her world view was a bit divorced from reality.  I decided that the time wasn’t quite right to go into all of the things she apparently forgot, like me being a primary means of support for her during grad school (outside of her scholarship and TA fees), the amount of money I spent on her during that period, largely supporting her (exclusive of her savings and incidental expenses) for the eight months after she moved to Calgary prior to finding a job.  Still pulling my weight after I lost mine.  Reapportioning expenses to be more fair after my income decreased to the rate below hers, but keeping the mortgage sharing equal.  But she doesn’t seem to have understood the difference between “fair” and “equal”.

Now, this is relevant, because when she left me, I had an episode of Jealousy, writing her things that were probably best left unsaid.  I don’t know if I was just milder, or if she was a better person about it.  What the mortgage thing did was make me aware that I’m almost past her and her decision just to throw away blithely our fifteen years together.  Following on an earlier incident of selfishness on her part, it’s like this is the second stage of me finally getting past her.  Each time I get angry at her (few of those times as there are), more of what I’ve held inside me burns away in that heat.  It’s not all gone, and just looking at her can wash away all the pain and rekindle all the desire, but it’s getting easier.  Now that the sale is complete, and I don’t have to see or talk to her any more, maybe it will get easier still.

As well, since the sale completed and I have more time to think about this without the house sale getting in the way, it feels more and more like being jealous or having an attack of Jealousy related to her is just wasted effort, because it seems more and more like she just wasn’t worth the effort….or at least, that’s what I’m trying to convince myself of.  Certainly, “trying to keep” something I’d already lost turned into an exercise in futility that did neither of us any good.

As this is at least a second incident of me going off the deep end (sort of), and I’m learning the signs and the pitfalls, perhaps next time (if there is one), I can avoid it entirely.  Perhaps not, but I can hope, and maybe the sin next time won’t be so “deadly”, and I won’t make such a fool of myself over someone else who doesn’t deserve what I have to offer.

Posted in general, life, love, opinion, religion | Comments Off on Deadly sins….

Wow…just…wow

Posted by Keen Observer on March 17, 2012

This post (follow the links) scares the crap out of me for some reason:

http://www.smalldeadanimals.com/archives/019619.html

I believe that in a free society, no single person should be able to wield unrestricted power.  Based on my reading of the article at the examiner.com link (trying to read the full text of the EO made my eyes swim), there are absolutely NO CONTROLS on presidential power, should this Executive Order be invoked.  I find that very, very scary.

Update:
Ed Morrissey at Hot Air tries to calm people down, claiming this is just a terminology update:

http://hotair.com/archives/2012/03/18/national-defense-resources-preparedness-executive-order-power-grab-or-update/

Even with his analysis, I’m not convinced there’s nothing to worry about, and I’m not even American. That previous presidents signed similar EOs is not a justification in centralising that much power, or keeping it there. Especially when the current office-holder bemoaned not having the same freedom to act as a Chinese dictator.

But there’s nothing to worry about.

Posted in American, opinion, politics, stupidity | Comments Off on Wow…just…wow

Everything Has a Story

Posted by Keen Observer on March 8, 2012

When you can’t talk to the person you usually do about certain things, what do you do?  For me, I seem to be turning rather more to writing of one form or another (cold turkey is hard).  So, in that vein, I’d like to offer some thoughts on American Beauty, just to pander to a certain segment of my viewing audience.  As a warning for those who haven’t seen the film, there are spoilers.  [I also apologise in advance if it seems a little disjointed.  I haven’t the patience to edit it, and I wrote it over the course of four nights.  That’s bound to have an effect.]

It’s been a few days, now, since I watched the movie, so my thoughts have had time to simmer and collate into something approaching a reasonable whole.  The problem is that there’s so much going on in the movie, a single viewing is unlikely to reveal everything.  I’ll point out first, though, that this is not my normal viewing choice for vegging out in front of the TV.  I tend to prefer actioners of one sort or another and watch bad guys get the shit blown or kicked out of them, or satire/comedies.  But, I have enjoyed movies of this type from time to time.

There are several key premises in the movie, and I’ll attempt to deconstruct a few of them, in terms of how I saw and interpreted the events in the script.

The first main premise is the archetypal mid-life crisis that Lester (Kevin Spacey) experiences.  There isn’t really anything new here, I don’t think, but the events of the film revolve around this crisis, and so it becomes more than “just” a mid-life crisis film, because that would be boring.  In short, Lester hates his job, has fallen out of love with his wife, is estranged from his daughter, and generally unhappy with the state of his life.  And these relationships spider out into the world, causing cascading effects.  Each set of issues is different, but it is ultimately Lester’s changes that drive the film.

The second premise of the film that I’ll look at is authenticity, or its lack thereof.  There are several examples of a fake cover on a real person, that it’s sometimes hard to keep them all straight. And there are different flavours of it, as well, including the mantra, “To be successful, you must look successful.”

The third premise I’ll examine is feeding off of others.  There are a small number of ways in which this is implemented within the film, but the most dramatic belongs to the character of Angela (Mena Suvari), in both an incoming and outgoing direction.

The fourth key premise to the film I’ll look at is encapsulated in this post’s title.  This concept comes from the character of Ricky (Wes Bentley), who spends much of his free time making videos of almost anything, and it is he who makes the statement.  I personally think this was perhaps an attempt by the director or writer to perhaps be clever, but it’s certainly true.

The final premise I’ll examine is one of happiness–or at least contentment.  All of the key premises in the film, I think, have the presence, absence, or pursuit of happiness as a key component, and in some ways, it seems to me to be the central theme of the movie, but that may change as I think through things with my keyboard.

Mid-Life Crisis

Lester is an advertising copywriter married to a real-estate broker (Carolyn, played by Annette Bening).  Neither is happy.  Neither is the same as they were when they fell in love.  Neither has a clue about what their daughter (Jane, played by Thora Birch) is up to or in to.  And neither really knows how to fix it, even if they were inclined to do so.  There is so much routine in their lives that it’s stifling.  Lester’s crisis begins to manifest when he sees Angela for the first time–Angela, who is a friend of his daughter’s in high school.  He starts out infatuated and becomes obsessed.  So he is in a receptive frame of mind when he subsequently encounters Ricky, also in high school, but slightly older.  He shares with and then sells pot to Lester, but it is just quitting his catering job out of the blue that impresses Lester the most.  Ricky becomes his new “personal hero”, who inspires him to action.  With the impetuses given by Ricky and Angela, he quits his job in spectacular fashion, stands up to his wife for the first time in years, attempts to heal the breach with his daughter (but failing), begins working out, smokes pot, buys the car he always wanted, and gets a minimum-wage job with no responsibility.  Ultimately, he becomes a much happier person, letting go of a fairly sizable amount of of emotional baggage.

All of the actions that Lester takes have a fallout of sorts among the other characters.  Angela takes an interest in Lester, not-so-subtly encouraging him.  This seems like part a game to her, and part a genuine quest for love/affection/happiness, something that seems to be implied is absent in her personal life.  Through him, she begins to become more honest…less fake.  She seems more vulnerable.

Jane, seeing what is happening between Angela and her father, responds strongly to the interest that Ricky shows in her, even if it was initially “creepy”.  She finds someone interested in her real self–not, as with Angela, cast in the “groupie” role, so to speak–and begins to consider getting out of the emotional-basket-case environment that is her family life.

Carolyn has her sedate, regular, suburban lifestyle upset, which causes her to react in a much stronger way to her professional failures, including having an affair with a competitor and consider killing what she sees as the source of her problems and unhappiness–Lester.

Ricky, other than being the “outsider” acting to cause change, doesn’t really feed off of Lester, except in that it provides a scenario he can use to escape his abusive home life; interconnected with the events, however, it does cause him to call out Angela for her using/fake behaviour.  The source of that abuse is his father, the Colonel (played by Chris Cooper).

Lester’s mid-life crisis behaviour reaches out to touch even him, who directly interacted with Lester but twice.  This behaviour caused him to face his suppressed homosexuality in a test he failed in spectacular fashion; it also caused him to finally drive his son from is house, labouring under the mistaken belief (encouraged by Ricky as an exit strategy) that his son was earning money as a gay prostitute (rather than as the drug dealer he really was).

So it’s fairly easy to see how one person’s mid-life crisis reaches out to touch all the other major players in his life, and beyond.  Ultimately, its unrestrained nature ends in his destruction, but that’s almost a side-effect.  I relate fairly well to four of the five themes in the film.  This one is perhaps the most logical, give my age matches Lester’s in the film, and I’m undergoing some significant mid-life changes myself.  So I have to try to keep in mind that my choices in this time can have effects beyond me.  I just have to make sure not to flirt unintentionally with any Marine colonels.

Authenticity

Another central theme to the film revolves around honesty…primarily to oneself, but also to others.  A great many of the characters’ problems visible in the film come from this lack of honesty.  The most catastrophic result of self-dishonesty resides in the actions of the Colonel, who, when his advances are rebuffed by Lester in a case of mistaken understanding, can’t abide someone living who knows his “dark secret” but doesn’t share it.  He kills Lester to protect his secret, possibly preventing Carolyn from doing the same thing out of a false sense of victimhood.  I find it slightly ironic that his name is Frank Fitts, since he is anything but frank, and certainly doesn’t fit properly.  Whether this is intentional, I don’t know.

Carolyn epitomises a conundrum.  She is an adherent to the belief that if she looks successful, she will be successful (and, by extension, happy).  However, despite all her attempts to appear successful, she is not–at least, not in any way she admits to herself.  She has completely bought into the concept that she sells an image, and she carries the fake image with her into her personal life.  There are a couple of set-pieces within the film to demonstrate how she is not a professional success, and the entire film is laced with her personal failures.  She convinces herself that none of it is her fault…she blames either Lester or Jane or Buddy Kane, “the King of Real Estate” (played by Peter Gallagher), and so she develops the belief that she is a victim.  This self-delusion leads her to have an affair with Buddy (under the initial guise of “picking his brain” to become more successful), and as a result of this affair, she becomes a handgun shooter, which provides her with a means of “empowerment”, which appears towards the end of the film to be leading to her killing Lester as a means of asserting that she “will not be a victim”.  Had the Colonel not beaten her to it, at any rate.  Her self-delusion led her away from what she refused to see, and it was only after Lester’s murder that she allowed herself to realise that she actually loved Lester and also to realise the many mistakes she had made, now that she no longer had the ability to correct them.

Jane had very little in the way of self-delusion.  Her problem seemed largely to be that she believed that her problems could be solved by a boob job–or perhaps by killing her father.  And perhaps that she pretended to be offended by Ricky’s interest in her earlier on in the film.  Or that she really did love her parents.  However, when she realised that Ricky didn’t care about such things (or believe that there was anything wrong with her), she was willing to forgo this desire and be more accepting of who she was.  At least, this is what I can get out of it, since she offered her boob-job money to Ricky to help them leave their respective situations, not knowing of his financial solvency.  She did, also, try to suggest to Angela that she tone down her “bragging”, but couldn’t quite come out and really call her out on it, perhaps out of fear of losing her friend.

Angela was possibly the other biggest faker in the film.  I haven’t quite decided.  My view is that nothing she did in the film was truly honest, with the possible exception of her interest in Lester, until the abortive seduction, when their dance around each other came to its climax.  During this sequence, she started to speak honestly, possibly for the first time.  When asked what she wanted, she said, “I don’t know.”  She volunteered that she was a virgin, despite us seeing repeated “brag” evidence to the contrary.  She said she felt stupid.  And in her dénouement in the kitchen with Lester, she finally seemed like a normal girl.

Ricky was never really dishonest in the film, except with his father.  He was honest almost to a fault otherwise, including letting Angela know in no uncertain terms what he thought of her, and taking every chance he got to indicate his preference for Jane over her.  He could sense that she was unauthentic in every way that mattered to him, and in making that value judgement, gave Jane more of a sense of self-worth than she had previously had.  I don’t think he ever harboured any self-delusion, though, and it enabled him to be more honest with others (except where it was required for self-preservation), and to see the truth through his camera.

Lester is the character in the film that runs counter to everyone else, really.  He starts out being perhaps the most self-delusional, but that’s arguable.  However, it is his trip to self-knowledge and self-honesty–despite his obsession with Angela–that affects everyone else.  It seems as the movie progresses, more of these delusions–built up over the length of his marriage–are peeled gradually away, and he reverts to how he was prior to marrying Carolyn, which is a more-authentic Lester.  And it is his ultimate honesty with the Colonel that dooms him, as he admits with no rancour that he no longer loves his wife, leading the Colonel to confirm his belief that Lester is gay, and the sequence of events that follows from that.

So, it’s easy to see, I think, that allowing yourself to be honest with yourself and with others is the best way to both external and internal happiness, especially as it seems that arguably the most honest–and happiest–character in the film is the one around which it revolved, even though it ultimately got him killed.  He was happy and at peace with himself and the world.  It also seemed as though other characters that grew did so by means of external honesty or self-honesty, whereas those who continued to suffer/deteriorate did so be continued falseness.  Ricky is an odd exception, wherein he gained freedom from his prison by being completely dishonest, an interesting paradox.

Feeding off Others (aka, Using People)

All of the major characters feed off of others in one way or another, and to varying degrees and purposes, and one of the key scenes in the film focuses on this concept.  But I’ll quickly run through what I see for each character.

Lester feeds off Angela, but in a fairly base way.  The unhappiness in his life let him attach his emotions and motivations to a teenaged girl in a way that pushed him to better himself (leaving the drugs aside as a question), and not solely to impress her, although that formed part of his motivation.  His was not, strictly speaking, a parasitic feeding, but it had symbiotic elements.

Carolyn fed off of both Jane and Buddy, and Lester to a lesser extent.  Her own unhappiness pushed her into a self-defeating spiral, where she had some vicarious living through her offspring (or belittling her), but most of her feeding was off of Buddy:  her competitive push, her desire to suck knowledge from him, and her strangely-awakened sexuality that she had been denying her husband.  I think she also fed from Lester in the sense that she needed him to be “normal” or to assert some control over her life by controlling him (and Jane) in their routines; as well, her treatment of Lester in general seems to have stemmed from some need to raise herself up at his expense (and yet, she “felt” a victim–an interesting pathology).

Jane fed possibly the least of all the characters, in that it was Ricky’s interest in her that helped her grow somewhat.  There was some minor feeding from Angela, but Ricky mostly displaced that.

The Colonel seemed to feed much darker sides of his personality.  Latently (and potentially psychotically) homosexual, he abused his family (the abuse of his wife is implied, not seen), and tried his best to control his son’s life and behaviour (delusionally thinking it was possible), all in the name of hiding and perhaps punishing his hidden secret.  He fed off the violence against his son, which can be seen by his desire for Ricky to fight back against his assaults.  He fed off his own self-disgust and fear of his son being just like him.  He feeds off his anger and disgust for the neighbourhood gay couple.  His authoritarian stances and regimented lifestyle were perhaps his guards against his inner nature coming to the surface.  It is almost as though the things he feeds off of helped him stay in control…until his nature actually surfaced.

Ricky fed off several, I think, but all in different ways.  His role is primarily as the agent of change, but he also feeds.  He feeds off is dad’s anger and rage, partly using it as a focus and partly to fight against it.  He feeds off of Lester, although it is primarily an economic relationship until the end, when he uses Lester as the means to break away from his father.  He feeds primarily off of Jane, both for personal and creative reasons.  I think that it is also in feeding from Jane that he is able to finally break the cycle of abuse in his family and walk away from it.

Angela really only feeds off of two people:  Lester and Jane, and in both cases the relationship is more symbiotic than parasitic.  Lester she feeds off of, because he shows sexual interest in her, but the feeding is strongly bi-directional.  I infer that she has portrayed herself publicly in such a harsh manner for so long, that only two people really seem to relate to her, and only one in a completely honest fashion, if circumspect (mostly).  It is in “using” Lester that she finally grows and admits to him and to herself things which she had previously denied.  Her use of Lester ultimately becomes a good.  Her use of Jane is more venal.  Her confrontational scene with Ricky near the film’s end encapsulates it pretty well, in which he accuses her of being so ordinary and ugly that she has to use Jane in order to feel better about herself.  Being so fake a person up to this point and finally getting called on it–and opening a rift with her only “friend”–shocks her to her core, stripping away the pretense that she had been hiding behind.  In my view this is the point at which she finally starts to shed her delusions and lies and become an “honest woman”, so to speak.

The amount of “feeding”, as I call it, that goes on is indicative to me that it’s not really possible not to do it.  There is, however, a fine line between just using someone (as Angela does) versus more positive aspects of it.  The optimal case is a couple in love (and possibly by extension family units), wherein two people feed off each other in symbiosis, but it’s not a selfish thing at all.  The energy (or love or inspiration or what have you) that one person might siphon from the other is generally given freely, if it’s even noticed, and it’s nearly always reciprocated.  Lester’s “relationship” with Angela approaches this sort of behaviour, even though it’s pretty one-sided.  Jane and Ricky share this sort of symbiosis.  But the dark, negative behaviours are also shown, and sliding into this sort of usage of others is very easy and can have catastrophic results.  Leaving aside the positive aspects of feeding off of others, this is the theme/premise I associate with the least out of the five.

Everything Has a Story

I actually find this to be the most intriguing theme within the movie, believe it or not, despite my earlier remarks about being in a bit of a mid-life crisis myself.  Maybe it comes from being a sort of storyteller, but there it is.  As I said earlier, I’m still undecided if this was the story-within-a-story, where the director/writer tries to be a little clever and make a grand pronouncement hidden in the movie.  There are enough layers, though, that I tend to doubt this, and it’s just a theme.

The most obvious example of this is through Ricky.  He is the one that espouses the premise as he shows Jane a video of a swirling plastic bag. “Everything” encapsulated in something so simple, plus the stories of the dead pigeon and dead homeless person.  Additionally, his shelving full of video tapes and equipment –but mostly the tapes–obviously cries out that these are his stories of everything.  But it goes far beyond that, and it’s a lesson that storytellers are advised to heed.

If you look at the Colonel’s collection of memorabilia, you can see another obvious example of how everything has a story.  The Colonel’s study holds two significant items:  the Reichschancellerei plate and the later murder weapon.  Each has a story unto itself, but the plate bears at least two:  the story of the Colonel’s past life and interests, plus the plate’s own history.  It also serves as an inciting incident for more abuse by the Colonel later in the film.  But the Colonel himself hints at stories, of his suppressed sexuality, of the likely course of events for his wife and son, and so on.

Within Lester and Carolyn’s house and property, there are many stories.  The film opens with Lester commenting on Carolyn’s gardening accessorising.  A story is hinted at, but not immediately explained.  There is the over-arching symbolism of the American Beauty roses, which is apparently a pretty flower prone to rot at the roots.  Carolyn tries at one point to tell the story of a couch, while Lester tries to tell the story of their romance.  The couch wins.  Carolyn also creates stories with her open houses, but sometimes people don’t read the same story as she wrote.  Her self-help books and tapes tell their own stories, sometimes divorced from reality.  Carolyn creates the story of her life, entirely fictional.  Lester has the story of the 1970 Camaro.  He has the story of his boss’s peculation and how he negotiates a golden parachute of sorts out of his company.

Angela creates the story of her modelling career and active sex life.  She also creates the story of a sexual relationship with Lester, which he overhears and uses as his excuse for self-improvement.  Jane creates the story of breast augmentation as a means to a happy ending to what she sees as her problems.  She watches the story of her parents’ estrangement and bizarre behaviour.  She is an active observer of Angela’s stories.

But this all elides that there are simpler ways to look at all things having stories.  As a geologist, it’s easy to pick up a rock off the street–gravel from winter roads–and see a story within the rock that can only be touched upon, but never fully known.  Without seeing the rock, I can speak of it’s glacial past, but nothing before that without analysis.  A blade of grass can have a story, though one “simpler”.  The life of an immobile weed is that of seeing the world pass by it–and pass it by.  Perhaps it is a story of being repeatedly chopped up by a lawnmower blade or a pair of shears.   Perhaps the story is that of a dog pissing on it.  And consider a water glass:  What stories might it tell, of the fluids it has held, the hands that have held it, the lips it has touched?  And with a blade of grass or a rock or a water glass having stories of depth and time and interactions, how much simpler is it to conceive of the story of anything–or anyone–you see?

And that is where the resonance comes from as a storyteller, and why I chose this premise as the post title.  The stories are all there, and if you can’t see them, you can always make them up.

Happiness

The final element I will discuss is that of happiness.  I have perhaps a somewhat pessimistic view of the film in that regard, but yet there is a message of hope to it.  It’s easy to see that there really isn’t anyone in the film who is happy, depending on how you describe such a state.  The reasons are varied, and in large part already discussed above.  But everyone in some way or another is actively trying to pursue happiness.  Initially, I think Ricky was possibly the only person with some measure of happiness, in that as long as he was able to keep his father at bay, he was left to his own devices, which included taking films of anything that caught his fancy, plus smoking pot.

For Angela and Jane, neither was happy, but they had their friendship.  A potential irony is that they had the same personal issues, but each dealt with it differently:  Angela lashed out, and Jane sought physical improvement via surgery, but both were highly insecure.  Carolyn pretended to be happy, but was so unhappy; I believe that she hoped the power of suggestion and “looking” happy (i.e., successful) would make her that way.  The Colonel projected his discipline and control as happiness, but he was deeply unhappy, as he was at war with himself, but took it out on his family.  Lester was obviously unhappy and knew it, but occasionally faked happiness in the name of getting along.

However, for the most part, no one in the film achieved any sort of happiness, with the exception of Lester, and possibly Ricky/Jane.  Angela I think was on the way to being happy, or at least, not so intensely unhappy, more at peace with herself, more honest with herself.  Ricky/Jane were possibly on the course to being happy, but they were both running away from their problems.  With that in mind it is unlikely that they would find actual happiness, but it is possible once they removed themselves from their unhappy environments.  Carolyn, she threw away her happiness in pursuit of an ephemeral–and potentially unachievable–goal.  She remained unhappy, and was the only person to openly cry in the film (that I recall).  The Colonel was unhappy at revealing himself and unhappy at having to hide his secret again.  He killed to protect it (or out of rage for being “led on”?), but he will remain unhappy.

Lester, however, I think attained happiness.  One by one, he removed elements from his personal and professional lives that made him unhappy, and acquired things that were more of an expression of his true self, long suppressed.  He discovered what is being presented (I think) as the secret to finding happiness:  being yourself, and being content/at peace with yourself.  As he stripped away what was not himself, he was able to get closer to the goal of being happy–or, at least, more happy.  He prepared himself physically to make himself more attractive to Angela (it is telling, in fact, that he did not put the effort in for his wife, who would not have appreciated it).  He became a regular smoker of pot and a regular exerciser.  And at the end of the film, he was able to pull back from the precipice of sex with a willing Angela, and instead converted her to a sort of proxy for his indifferent/estranged daughter.  And he was, at the end of the film, happy, dwelling on the happy memory encapsulated in an old photograph.  Just before his brain splattered on the kitchen wall.  The rather surreal voice-over that follows his murder serves to echo that point, I think.  He’s in some sort of afterlife full of happiness and beauty where he cannot hold on to his anger over his murder.

I question that such a place could exist (see my earlier posts involving religion), but I also think that his physical death is a metaphor for a different type of personal death that someone might have to go through in order to shed negativity that prevents various types of emotional healing and progression.  It is the final severing that must happen (for example, through cognitive therapy or Kübler-Ross acceptance), when a person is working through emotional issues.  At some point, there is enough talk, and the client (or just a regular person figuring things out on his own) learns to let go of the painful past, but not in a suppressive way.  The Colonel is the antithesis of this, violently burying his past once more, but Lester moves past the anger and bitterness and is able to find a measure of happiness that eludes everyone else.  And the metaphor has him passing on to some sort of “higher plane”, where such pain is no longer in control of his life.

I’m not sure I can wrap this all up into a nice, neat, little package, so I’m not going to try.  I’ll have one read-through for obvious mistakes, but there’s rather a lot of stream-of-consciousness writing going on in this 4800-word piece, and that’s hard to fix after the fact.

So, there you have it.  My rough interpretation of what I saw in American Beauty.  Have fun with it, because now that it’s done, I’m going into honey-badger mode.

Posted in entertainment, opinion | 1 Comment »

The Arrogance of Knowledge

Posted by Keen Observer on February 10, 2012

So, on the suggestion of a friend, I watched Good Will Hunting, an “older” film that I had never before seen. It won a couple of deserved Academy Awards and launched (or dramatically improved) at least two careers, but until it was recommended, I hadn’t really had interest in it. When I asked my friend if she had any suggestions for another blog topic, she suggested that I review the film. I’m not really a film critic, but I do understand to some level critical analysis. However, after watching the film, I was struck by an idea based on the core scene of the film that seemed more of interest to me than a strict review.

The central scene of the film, on a park bench somewhere in Boston (ostensibly), involves the characters of Will Hunting (protagonist, played by Matt Damon) and Sean Maguire (antagonist, I think, played by Robin Williams). The discussion is essentially one-sided, where Maguire starts to break through the defensive shell erected by the prodigy genius Hunting to protect himself after a violent childhood in foster care. Hunting understands things around him without effort, reads everything and remembers what he reads, extrapolates, analyses. His problems lie primarily in anti-social behaviour and an unwillingness to risk personal loss outside his core group of friends.

In a series of previous encounters with psychologists, he disassembles—humbles—them, rather than allowing them be able to use their services on him to deal with the pain of his past. He had also done the same thing with Maguire, cutting almost to the core of Maguire’s sense of self and dissatisfaction following the death of his wife some years before. In his own way Maguire’s defences were as solid as Hunting’s. But in this scene, he explains that, despite all Hunting’s intelligence and his gifts and his attempted evisceration of Maguire’s character in their previous meeting, he’s “just a kid.”

The scene is pivotal—the film prior to this is really just preamble—and his words take down Hunting’s character a few pegs in a way he’d never been addressed before, with compassion and understanding and truth:

 Sean: So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You’re an orphan right?
[
Will nods]
Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. [copied and pasted from IMDB]

This scene represents in my view the turning point of the film, where Hunting begins to grow and change (and Maguire in parallel). But that’s not what I’m interested in talking about. It has been established by this point in the film that Hunting is a rare genius with eidetic memory. He can learn things quickly, but he also understands them: it’s not just rote memorisation. From what he reads and learns, he can extrapolate beyond to new understanding and knowledge. There is a later scene in which he describes his gift like that of Mozart or Beethoven, that they just know the piano, but couldn’t explain how.

He has this gift, and because of his violent childhood and adolescence, he doesn’t really know what to make of it. As part of his defence mechanism against his memories, he wields his gift like a weapon, through arrogance and being cock-sure, defensive, defiant. But in some ways he doesn’t really learn, because it’s all just theoretical knowledge, what some might call “book learning” or “book smarts”. Maguire’s litany hit Hunting hard, I think, because it’s truth he knows, but perhaps without acknowledgement until that point. He knows that he’s super-smart, but he also knows at some level that it isn’t enough, but he can’t figure out what or why.

True learning can’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t happen because of reading or instruction. These are just paths. It doesn’t happen just because of observation, either. Someone can observe a hand get burned in a fire, but there is no connection to the observer; absent the analysis and knowledge, the observer might not learn that fire burns without experimentation. Someone may have what are known as “street smarts”—a counterpoint to book smarts—and be very wise in the ways of the world, but have little skill in applying his knowledge in other settings. An example of this might be a natural gear-head, someone who can break down and build up a car’s engine, but with no idea of how internal combustion works, or how to do something similar to a small appliance. The simplest form of this might be Pavlovian conditioning: I know that if a bell rings, I will be fed, but I don’t know why or how.  And I likely don’t care, because I can’t conceive of anything beyond the bell and the food.

So, from my point of view—and I may be re-hashing years of educational research already published—there are these four primary facets of learning: knowledge (information, data, etc), observation, analysis, and empirical testing (or validation); this view is not different in any major way from the scientific method. True learning, to me, requires a balance among these methods, or perhaps a progression through, depending; any subset of these four will result in incomplete learning. For Hunting, he had immense knowledge, but little on the empirical side; what he did “know” empirically was largely false, the product of his dysfunctional childhood. He was so intensely out of balance that therapy and love were what it took to boost him out of his rut, a rut he couldn’t even see (or had long since ceased to acknowledge).

I have met a few intensely-smart people in my life. Not a one of them is smart in the same way as the others. Some of them are (or were) sort of “broken” in some way also, but not to the degree of Will Hunting. One or two of them had a lot of book learning to accompany amazing intellect. For them, though, the book learning wasn’t the type of handicap that it seemed at times to be for Hunting. What crippled him in part was his assertive arrogance that grew out of his childhood abuse as a means of self-protection. And arrogance is an impediment to true learning. Someone who is arrogant about their knowledge or intelligence generally cannot be taught, nor can he be “made” to learn, except with topics that interest him. And held “truths” cannot be challenged by mere words, and sometimes not even by self-evident facts.

I speak, here, from experience. I have been guilty of this attitude myself at periods in my life, especially in situations where I was convinced I was dealing with someone far less intelligent than I. One specific case I can recall without effort was the last time I sat a well as well-site geologist. The details shall remain obscure, but a rig hand told me something that I disregarded, as it conflicted with what I had been expecting. I continued on, and the net result was at least another day’s rig time and a useless core cut, extracted, and analysed. The total cost of my arrogance in this situation was in the tens of thousands of dollars to the operating company, and little to no return on their cost investment. And by self-selection partially as a result of this, I did not work again in the oil industry for five-plus years. The economic and personal costs resulting from this decision were significant to me, and in some ways are still felt. This is my personal example of the cost of arrogance, and I must be constantly on guard against recurrences in my daily life.

For Hunting, his personal costs were greater in some ways, but ultimately, with his arrogance broken—or at least bent—he was finally able to recognise that his prodigious knowledge and intellect were insufficient, and after struggling, he was able to begin to learn the lessons that people around him had been trying to teach him. These lessons had stacked up, and then they all fell rapidly into place, once his emotional and arrogance blocks were overcome. And once these blocks to learning—especially self-learning—began crumbling, the world opened up to him in a way he had never previously imagined.

Anyway, I thought this was interesting when it occurred to me. Your mileage may vary.

Posted in entertainment, opinion | Comments Off on The Arrogance of Knowledge