Archive for September, 2012

The Hurt of Depression

With fall and winter coming on, people are more prone to depression. Every year on average, nineteen million Americans suffer some form of depression. One in four adults will experience depression sometime during their life. An interested fact from Katie Couric’s new online talk show stated that people born after 1950 are ten times as likely to be depressed. Why this is I don’t know.

Three hormones in the body are believed to regulate mood: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. When these hormones get out-of-whack, trouble ensues. According to Dr. Ellen McGrath who was interviewed by Katie Couric, there are three main types of depression: situational, seasonal (as in Seasonal Affective Disorder—SAD), and a chemical imbalance in the brain. Couric admitted to severe situational depression after her husband died, but the more common form of depression, chemical, can be treated with prescription drugs.

Part of the problem in treating depression is the embarrassment of admitting that you are indeed depressed. People sometimes joke about mood disorders, as in, “I’m having a nervous breakdown.” Really? Does that mean you need to be hospitalized, or is this something you can handle on your own? A true nervous breakdown would most assuredly require a hospital visit.

We still don’t know what triggers a mood disorder episode, but the three factors believed to be involved include biological, psychological, and social components. To be diagnosed with depression, a person must experience symptoms for more than two weeks. Many people try to “wait it out,” rather than seek professional help. This adds to the feelings of loneliness and isolation.

I have learned, slowly perhaps, that exercise is a great way to combat depression. Exercise has been found to increase the body’s own natural antidepressants, called endorphins. The difficulty is getting out of bed and forcing yourself to start your day, but physical activity is definitely a great way to raise your mood.

Sometimes all you can do is hang in there, believing that even regarding moods and feelings, “This too shall pass.” A close friend of mine in despair committed suicide, not seeing the possibility of change. To me, suicide is the ultimate “screw you” to the universe. What suicidal people seem incapable of figuring out is how those closest to the individual, those left behind, will be affected permanently by the loss of someone they love. Our lives here on earth are so short; why rush toward the darkness? We can hope for life in the world to come, but there are no guarantees. As so eloquently stated in the film “Won’t Back Down,” just out in theaters, “What are you going to do with your one and only life?” Make your life matter. Are you going to trust your eyes, or are you going to trust your heart?


A Masterful Flop

The movie “The Master” is a serious film that takes itself too seriously. It is a bit repetitive in trying to make its point.

The beginning starts out promisingly, creatively, by zooming in on Joachin Phoenix’s character Freddie humping a sand-shaped figure of a girl, then shows him going off toward the ocean to masturbate. If the point of the scene was to make the audience uncomfortable, “The Master” certainly succeeded on that account.

Not only is it a bizarre start, Freddie slurs his words to the degree that Phoenix is barely understandable. I was reminded of the development of Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavski’s, The Method, whereby the actor works to inhabit the mind of the character, a rigorous endeavor requiring dedication, discipline, and careful artistic self-analysis, and the specific words spoken take a backseat to the authentic display of the character. Marlon Brando made this method famous in the U.S., but this style of acting should be used sparingly in that it threatens to alienate the audience from relating to the main character. Both Joachin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are masterful in their ability to fully realize their characters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix or Hoffman were nominated for an Oscar. Hoffman won the Academy Award for best actor in 2006 for the film “Capote,” so it seems it might be Joachin Phoenix’s turn, especially after his work as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.” Unfortunately, “The Master” drags, and isn’t clear in the point it is trying to make. The screenplay doesn’t support the efforts of the actors.

I did, however, find myself rooting for Freddie as he gets out of the armed services and seeks to re-acclimate himself to living in society, not altogether successfully. We don’t want him to screw up his work as a photographer, but we know that things are likely to go dramatically wrong before they are righted again. Mental illness in film has been a popular topic lately, and mixed with alcoholism it makes for a potent, powerful combination of combustible characters likely to come apart, creating more tension to drive the story. Freddie makes a nearly lethal homemade brew that includes paint thinner, and his drink actually kills someone. When my dad was in the navy, an alcoholic Native American he worked with kept drinking aftershave until he dropped the concoction on the floor, then he started pounding back aviation alcohol, causing his premature death. In this respect, I could understand the desperation of the characters seeking a way out of their skin.

The two main characters meet at sea as Freddie sneaks aboard a yacht where he passes out and when he wakes up he meets Lancaster Dodd. Dodd names himself the head of a cult religion termed “The Cause,” and the master collects followers with Freddie leading the way. The movie makes subtle parallels to Scientology in its method of recruiting members.

Freddie is malleable and moldable and Lancaster Dodd makes him into his henchman. He lies to Freddie, saying, “I’m the only one that likes you.” The master is not as obvious in his emotional outbursts, but he is a dangerous man when his anger erupts, especially if followers or lay people question his approach to religion. He is scariest in his quiet moments. The question we are left to ponder is: Will Freddie leave behind his violent ways behind to carve out a decent life for himself. The audience must decide whether people can actually rise above their circumstances to make a new reality for themselves?

Critics are bound to rally around this slow moving film for its unusual subject matter and great acting, but it dragged painfully. Take a pass unless you really want to predict the Academy Awards.

The Smell of Paris: A Poem

The Smell of Paris
Michael Anson

You told me I smell like Paris. . .
But what does Paris smell like?

Men wrapping their feet in newspaper
Desperately greedy, hands reaching for small change
I hear they are supported by the system
And walk on

Elegant Old World courts
Stuffed full of ancient men, consumed by their own importance
I hear their voiceless noise
And move on

The hustle and bustle of Armani-suited men scurrying for the metro
Frantically busy, no time to translate directions for an American
I hear their steps leading to darkness
And stumble on

I guess I don’t remember. . .
What does Paris smell like?

Liking the Unlikeable

Last night I went to see Tennessee Williams’ play Sweet Bird of Youth, written in the late 1950’s.  The basic plot is that a gigolo named Chance Wayne has latched onto a fading film star, played by Diane Lane.  He has great hopes to become a movie star himself, and seeks to rocket his longtime, estranged girlfriend into the spotlight as well.  Both main characters, Chance and Alexandra Del Lago, use each other to get what they want.  Alexandra repeatedly refers to the two of them as monsters, well over the edge of socially appropriate behavior.  These two people unabashedly use others, seeking first and foremost to get what they want out of life, damn anyone who gets in their way.

The story deals with issues not written about in the 1950’s, including sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and drug abuse, the plight of sexual playboys who seek a better life for themselves as well as how we all deal with the inevitable ravages of aging, no longer as attractive as we were in youth when we took our appeal for granted.

As I got on the elevator after the show, two late middle-aged women were discussing the play, and one commented quite vociferously that she couldn’t relate to the main characters; she couldn’t find any redeeming qualities, and didn’t like Chance or the Princess Del Lago.  I suspect she didn’t relate to the seedier side of human nature, and I found myself thinking, “She was born on third base, and thought she had hit a home run.”  It’s all too easy to stay comfortable in what life has given us, especially if that gift is affluence.

As a writer, getting an MFA in creative writing, I have encountered several different attitudes about whether our protagonists should be likeable.  My first fiction course instructor stressed that we need not try too hard to plug in details simply to help us understand the plight of the narrator.  She felt we should strive to make our characters interesting, not necessarily likeable.  Then readers and audiences would automatically root for our main characters, looking to see how they change by the end of the story.  Other instructors stressed that it is helpful if we imbue those we write about with some redeeming qualities, or, at the very least, an ambivalence about how they go about ameliorating their circumstances.

I don’t know exactly which answer is right, but I’m certain the one task writers encounter is that they themselves must relate to those they write about. 

Emile Zola said it best:  “If you ask me what I came into this life to day, I will tell you:  I came to live out loud!”  Let us make our brief time here matter.


Gotta Support Our Writers

The Neurotic Writer

The film “The Words” starts with a deceptively simple sentence: “The old man stood in the rain.” The old man stands outside, waiting for writer Rory Jansen, played by Bradley Cooper, to finish reading an excerpt from his book. Only it’s not really his book. Jeremy Irons, the gentleman in the rain, wrote the novel that Rory is passing off as his own. Rory knows that the author of this mysteriously discovered novel, left in a tattered briefcase, is certainly a better writer than he is, but he is so desperate to be published that he passes off the novel he has found as his own.

“The Words” utilizes the structure of meta-fiction, a kind of story inside a story. In this instance an author, played by Dennis Quaid, writes a novel where the main character is also a writer. He is a writer who has stolen work from another writer. Viewers are teased throughout, wondering if Quaid’s character has also committed intellectual theft.

The premise of the story revolves around the issue of plagiarism. From my limited knowledge of the publishing industry, it’s very difficult to prove that a novelist has stolen someone else’s writing. Not even titles can be copyrighted, but consider the foolishness of someone who would name their new work of original fiction “Angels and Demons.” I imagine a literary agent would insist on some other title, something not so identified with a specific author. Not only is it impossible to copyright titles, basic plots also do not belong to the writer. The only thing that can be protected is the expression of an idea, and it is difficult even in this circumstance to prove intellectual theft.

I once ran across a young man who swore to me that he had ghostwritten the Harry Potter stories. Suffice it to say I had the impression that this writer was not completely balanced. It does remind me, though, of all the authors who are afraid to send out their work, fearing that someone will steal the best bits of their originality. Hence the neurotic nature of so many novelists.

Then there is the example of the blurring of fiction and creative nonfiction. James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces,” tried to sell his novel to publishers as a work of fiction, but was advised to re-market it as a memoir. Oprah Winfrey, for one, was not amused at being duped.

In my mind, “The Words” successfully captures the anxieties and the angst of writers trying to leave something on paper for readers to discover, even long after their death.

The basic plot in “The Words” may have been inspired of the true story of Ernest Hemingway’s loss of all his early work. He was born in 1899, and committed suicide July 2, 1961, but interestingly, everything he wrote before 1922 has been lost. His first wife Hadley packed all his work into a briefcase and then left it behind on a train. It takes a special kind of gumption and resolve to continue on, convinced of your special talents and abilities, even when you’ve lost so much work.

Whether “The Words” was inspired by this true tale is not clear. But the experience of trying to protect original works of fiction rings true for many writers to this day. The challenge is to carry on, firmly believing that your efforts alone in your room late at night have value. To borrow a line from David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

“Shoot to Kill”

As the current Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina works its way toward the inevitable nomination of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to once again be the candidates in a reelection bid, I am reminded of a much different convention held in Chicago in 1968.

In that year, President Johnson was so embroiled in the divisive politics surrounding the unpopular Vietnam War that he decided in March of that year not to run again, and stepped aside. The 1968 Democratic National Convention was to be held in Chicago, and promised to be a contentious affair, fueled by partisanship, seeking back room alliances to lead to the nominations of a candidate who would appeal to the masses. Anti-war opponent Robert Kennedy had been the most likely candidate, but he was gunned down on June 5th, after winning the California primary, sending the delegates scrambling to find a candidate they could support.

On April 4th of that year, after civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated, riots broke out all over the U.S. The very next day, facing the likelihood of riots in the city of Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley told Chicago Police Superintendent James Conlisk to “Shoot to Kill” protestors. Then, ten days later at a press conference, expressed outrage that his order had not been carried out.

Daley was used to strong-arming opponents and ruling with an iron fist. Dissention was not tolerated in Chicago, and they called Chicago politics in that era “The Machine.” On page six of his seminal book “Boss,” famous columnist Mike Royko notes, “Daley was a product of the neighborhoods and he reflected it in many good ways—loyalty to the family, neighbors, old buddies, the corner grocer. You do something for someone, they do something for you.” However, Royko continues, “But there are other sides to Chicago neighborhoods—suspicion of outsiders, intolerance toward the unconventional, bigotry, and bullying.”

Protests in that era were dramatically different than protest movements now. People in the late ‘60’s really felt they could change politics and affect policies in the future. Nowadays, people speak in a more disheartened fashion, feeling that no matter the actions of any one individual or even a group, widespread change simply doesn’t occur. People seem to feel shut out of the process, but it’s important to point out, “No decision is a decision.”

My advice: Find something to care about and support. Make sure your actions have meaning, and believe in the possibility of change. It’s now almost cliché to claim: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” but I still hold firm to the faith that our lives do matter. As Emile Zola so profoundly states, “If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud!”

One Giant Leap

There’s a saying by the Dakota Indians: We will be known by the tracks we leave behind.

Never has this been truer than when it is concerned with the extraordinary life of Neil Armstrong, who died just a few days ago. He was the first man to set foot on the moon, and was followed shortly thereafter by Buzz Aldrin. They first announced, “The eagle has landed,” while fellow astronaut Michael Collins remained in the capsule.

Nowadays, we take the moon landing as something inevitable, but in July, 1969, the astronauts were far from assured of success, and, in a sense, they were putting their lives in jeopardy, doing something never done before. I read online that the astronauts of Apollo 11 could not get life insurance before launch themselves into space in case they were to die, so in an attempt to provide for their families, they sold sealed envelopes containing their autograph.

They proceeded in faith, though, and Armstrong, upon taking the first step of on the moon, famously said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Throughout his life, Armstrong remained a reluctant hero, filled with wisdom and humility. He may never have been featured on a box of Wheaties, but he changed the way we look at the world and its importance in the universe.

In a Life magazine article just a few months before launching himself into orbit, Armstrong noted, “The single thing which makes any man happiest is the realization that he has worked up to the limits of his ability, his capacity.” He continued, “It’s all the better, of course, if this work has made a contribution to knowledge, or toward moving the human race a little farther forward.”

Words to ponder in how we spend our days, and how we conclude what is most important to us.