Monday, September 01, 2014

The liar

For most of my adult life, I've lived with the liar.

As far as I can remember, the liar first entered my life when I was eight or nine, proceeded to become my inseparable companion in junior high, continued to keep tabs on me in high school, and volunteered to be my full-time roommate for several years of college. Since then it's been something of an on-again, off-again relationship -- mostly off-again, thank heavens, because liars are hard to live with.

But then, that's sort of the point. The liar wants me to stop living.

It took me a while to realize that the liar was there. See, liars aren't visible to the naked eye, and they don't have voices of their own, so they learn to use yours. They watch and listen. They discover your faults, your bad habits, your secret horrors, the things you hope no one ever finds out about you. They wait for the right moment. And they strike.

It doesn't feel like an attack. In fact, unless you've trained yourself to recognize how the liar operates, it might feel like you're alone with your own natural thoughts. But these thoughts are dark and disordered: You are worthless. You are useless. You are evil. You deserved to be hurt. You are broken, and will never be right again. You are a waste of space, time and money. Nothing will ever get better than it is right now. You are stuck in an endless loop of despair, and the only way out is oblivion. The best thing you could do would be to remove yourself from the picture. Over and over again, the liar whispers into your ear, its voice a perfect simulation of your own so that you'll pay attention, its words a stream of thick black poison, urging you to swallow them and die.

At times I've made the liar go away with medicine. Counseling provided a good antidote to the poisonous thoughts when I was in high school. Exercise sometimes helped chase it off, as did any creative act. And faith has given me the rock to which I cling, the belief that every human being has inherent, infinite worth. But in all cases, when the liar starts whispering things to me, I've found it extremely useful to externalize it, give it a physical form. Sometimes it's a particular mean girl from junior high, her hair and clothes still reeking from her smoke break in the girls' bathroom. Sometimes it's the college guy who callously broke my heart and crunched the shards under his foot. Sometimes it's the man who abused me when I was a child. It doesn't really matter what face I give it, as long as I make it look like a cruel, supercilious douchebag and recognize that it's trying to kill me. Because the minute I externalize the liar, give it a face I recognize as dangerous, and see its actions for what they are -- then I can fight it.

I can turn and tell it off. I can refuse to let it dictate to me. I can tell it that it doesn't get to be in charge of my life -- not how I choose to live it, and sure as hell not how it's going to end.

Depression lies. It wants you to believe you're worthless. It wants to suck the joy from your life. It constantly seeks to make you believe that the world would be a better place without you.

Kick it square in the nads.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A ditty

(Apologies in advance to Iggy Azalea)

I do laundry
You already know
I'm folding T-shirts
That say "Neo-Tokyo"

I do laundry
Hot, warm or cold
A touch of Clorox
Gets out mo-oo-oo-old

Saturday, August 23, 2014

On human utility and individual worth

Unless you happen to follow the Australian news media, you may not have heard of the Baby Gammy controversy. Here's the digested version: an infertile Australian couple engages a Thai woman to be their surrogate mother. The surrogate becomes pregnant with fraternal twins, one of whom -- a boy later named Gammy -- has Down syndrome. (According to the surrogate, the Australian parents told her to selectively abort the boy, but she would not do so, believing that ending an innocent life in such a manner would be wrong. For their part, the parents claim they never directed the surrogate mother to abort the child.) When the twins are born, the Australian parents visit Thailand, but only to retrieve their daughter; they abandon their unwanted biological son with his surrogate mother, leaving her to sort out what to do next and how to pay for the boy's necessary medical care (like many children with Down syndrome, Gammy has numerous medical issues, including congenital heart defects, and his health is delicate). The couple, who have been practically in hiding since their actions were brought to light, defend their choice on Australian television by saying they "don't think any parent wants a [child] with a disability" and further complain that they expected to receive a partial refund of the surrogacy fee, presumably because one of the children produced was defective.

The Baby Gammy case represents one surprisingly pervasive school of thought about human beings.

Here's a different one.

A couple I know well recently gave birth to a sweet little daughter. They could tell right away that she had some physical abnormalities, but it wasn't until her blood work came back that they found out their little girl was born with an extremely rare chromosome disorder -- one so rare, in fact, that I will not mention it by name in order to retain the family's privacy. Individuals with this particular disorder have severe to profound mental retardation, do not learn to talk, rarely learn to walk, have hearing and vision problems, low muscle tone, seizures and heart problems. They have extremely fragile health and often do not live past childhood. Here is what the mother of this little girl has to say about her:
"We know God gave us this perfect little human to teach us many things. She is beautiful and when she looks into your eyes her sweet spirit peers into your soul, pouring her love into your heart. We are so blessed to have her! We may not have known anything was wrong with her until she was born but it would not have changed a thing to know it sooner. We love her and our lives will be blessed forever no matter how long she is with us .... [Our daughter's purpose] is to teach those she comes in contact with about unconditional love."
What is the key difference between these two stories?

While you're thinking on that, here's another controversial idea: do you think human euthanasia should be legal? After all, when beloved pets become too old or too ill, we often do the merciful thing and have them put to sleep; shouldn't we be equally merciful to the human beings in our care? To be clear, we're not just talking about infants with moderate to severe physical and/or mental disabilities. Consider people like Christopher Reeve, one of my favorite actors; after a riding accident he was paralyzed from the neck down, no longer even able to breathe unassisted, lingering on for years as a completely helpless quadriplegic. Would it have been better for the doctors to have granted him his original wish, just after he'd wakened from the accident, and let him go gentle into that good night? Or what about Terri Schiavo, the woman who entered a "persistent vegetative state" after an incident of cardiac arrest and subsequent coma? Was it morally correct for her parents to fight to keep her alive, to continue to feed her, to keep her husband Michael from moving on with his own life indefinitely -- or did the courts make the fitting and proper decision to withhold food and water from her until she passed away? What of the many very old people who linger on for months or years, blind, deaf, senile, incontinent, incapable of enjoying anything resembling "quality of life" but just as incapable of bringing their lives to an end? Would it not be better to keep the beauty of their lives from sliding into jangling discord by choosing to impose a simple coda?

If you think of it, the practice of euthanizing individuals with low quality of life issues could be much more widely applied. Our prisons are vastly overcrowded, and there are a whole lot of serial predators in jail who could make the world a better place simply by never waking up again. People in mental institutions who had no hope of improvement would no longer be tortured by living with severe mental disorders. We could do away with the homeless problem in a single night by going under bridges and overpasses and through tent cities, spreading gentle death in our wake. Illegal immigration would slow to a trickle if we were to find and euthanize all those who had entered our country illegally. I hope you can see where I'm going with this; legalized euthanasia is a rabbit hole that yawns open all the way to China, because once a culture makes it permissible to end lives that are in some way inconvenient or imperfect, how does that culture halt the progression toward euthanizing people with polydactyly, albinism, vitiligo, elliptocytosis, cleft palates, depression, diabetes, even the wrong color of eyes?

As I see it, the key difference between Baby Gammy's parents and the couple I know, or between those who are in favor of legalizing euthanasia and those who find the idea abhorrent, is a specific difference in the way they view human beings. One group primarily views other humans in terms of their utility, and the other values human beings as people with unique individual worth.

It's quite common to see the "human utility" school of thought in the Western world. You see it in social behavior, in the way people cocoon themselves in comfort in their homes and never get to know their neighbors, because they don't need anything from them. You see it in politics, when a first world nation merely watches a third world country go through the hell and devastation of war or plague, declining to intervene because doing so would be costly and that country has no resources it wants. You see it in medicine, where abortion as a form of birth control has become commonplace. You see it in business practices ("human resources," anyone?), in education, and in law. You definitely see it in Hollywood, where attractive and accomplished people are constantly used as though they were talent vending machines, and the unwritten motto seems to be "What have you done for me lately?"

You could even make the argument that Hollywood's view of human utility sometimes contributes to the death of its talent pool. In fact, I think I will.

Let's take a recent example. A well-known, well-loved actor and comedian, the recipient of multiple awards for entertainment excellence, enters a dark period of his life. His physical health has not been ideal for several years and he has financial obligations from surgeries and treatment, he has been working on film after film to make money, the new television show he headed -- the closest thing to a steady paycheck in acting -- was cancelled after a single season, he's been struggling to maintain his sobriety, and recently he's discovered that the source of his deepening depression is a brain disease from which he will never recover. And as he sits still and lets the depression whisper poisonously disordered thoughts and ideas into his ear, he begins to think as Hollywood people think, in terms of human utility. He thinks of his current and former wives, his children, and other family members who depend on him for their support. He feels the weight of all the people whom he employs -- publicists, lawyers, personal assistants, housekeepers, security details -- as well as those who are indirectly employed because of his performances -- other actors, directors, producers, cinematographers, foley artists, caterers, etc. He thinks of the specific talent he has honed, on which all this hinges -- a lightning-quick, flexible mind, highly observant and able to put together odd connections at a moment's notice -- and how his doctors have recently informed him that his mind and body are destined to slow, to tremble and break down, until eventually he reaches a point of senility. He thinks of how he will progress from a highly successful, contributing member of elite society to a patient barely able to walk, from a man who can provide for others to a man who will impose a burden on his family's finances as his health becomes worse and worse. In terms of his simple utility to others, he perceives he will become a net negative. And one particular evening, when he is alone with these thoughts, the depression whispers to him, "You know what you have to do, and you have to do it now, while you still can. It doesn't have to be a complex plan. Just do what you do best. Improvise."

Thus it is that a man who so obviously saw the individual worth of other people -- who brought humor and hope to sick children and quadriplegics and active-duty members of the military, who regularly gave away huge sums of money from his performances to help the poor, homeless and distressed -- was incapable, in the end, of seeing the singularly bright glow of his own individual worth. All he saw was that, in the eyes of the world, he would eventually become useless to other people. And rather than allowing the people who loved him to show him another viewpoint, to let him see how much he was valued, he took his own life.

What is individual worth? It is the recognition that every human life, regardless of its "quality" or its utility to others, is precious and irreplaceable. It is the understanding that we give our kindness and support to others, not because they can do something for us, but because we love and cherish them, because it is an honor and a privilege to serve another human being. It is echoed in the words of the traditional Christian marriage vow, that each spouse takes the other not just for the good times, but "for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health." It is the knowledge that if the worth of every soul is great in the sight of God, how should it be any different in the sight of man?

As a Mormon, I believe that human beings -- all human beings -- are spirit children of God who once lived in His presence, and who therefore have within them the seeds of deity. Our lives here on earth are imperfect and messy, and our minds and bodies have various problems, but that is largely because we are being subjected to individual tests, tailored to our specific strengths and weaknesses and designed to help us fulfill our potential to become like God. This way of thinking about oneself, about other people, allows very little admittance for the concept of human utility, and no admittance for the concept of brooming people aside when they become a burden. Whether or not we see it, even the most wretched human life on this planet has infinite worth and glorious potential, and the only lasting tragedy is to see that potential wasted and destroyed.

In his book The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis famously wrote, "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship .... You have never talked to a mere mortal." One wonders if the biological parents of Baby Gammy might perceive their discarded son a bit differently if they could see past his disability, past the inevitable imperfections that are part of being human, and grasp his individual worth -- if, even for a moment, they could catch a glimpse of the sort of being he is destined to become. But that level of perception of other people is hard to achieve when you're occupied with thoughts of ways to use them.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The mighty Geocaching Block Party of 2014

Well, having had a few days to recover, I have to say this was an eventful Block Party... though some of it not the kind of "eventful" I'd care to repeat.

First, the good stuff: we met some spiffy new people and completed the lab cache challenge for this year (I especially liked the one with the box that had multiple combination locks, all of which had to be successfully opened to reveal the passcode.)

Also good stuff: in addition to the merry party of Fen, Mitch and Mike, our friends Linda and son came to the Block Party this year, and by all accounts they had a blast!

Shown here: our doughty adventurer, undaunted by the ick factor, scrabbles about in slimy goop in order to find the next passcode.

Additional good stuff: I gots me some pretties.
The large Celtic-themed coin I purchased; the rest were given away as swag or as rewards for finishing challenges. (Yay, steampunk-related geotags for the win!)

You may notice a dearth of pictures of me or of Captain Midnight this year. There's a reason for that. I was preoccupied to the point that I took very few pictures, because...

Not-so-good stuff: I got sick.
Those of you who know me may already be aware that I am a Tough Swede and I can handle it! Well, Tough Swedes can take on the cold all day long; heat is a different story. It was hot and slightly humid in Seattle, I hadn't eaten breakfast or taken the time to put plenty of water into me beforehand, and I'm already at high risk to become easily overheated (yes, diabetes and family history of dehydration, I'm lookin' at you). About two hours into the day's festivities, I began to develop a pounding headache of Zeus-gives-birth-to-Athena proportions. Then I got flushed and dizzy, and suddenly stopped sweating -- and didn't start up again, even after I began belatedly guzzling water. After that came the nausea and, um, related emesis. Yup, heat stroke. At least it was a relatively mild case, but I haven't been quite right all this weekend.

It was the kind of fun that isn't. I don't think I'll choose to do that part again. (Next year, remind me to drink lots of water in advance so as to stave off further forays into dehydration-related ick.)

Oh, yeah, one more thing. Just because it seemed like a good idea at the time, I picked up another geocoin, gave it a name and a purpose and released it into the wild this weekend. The Marty Fromage Memorial Coin is my small, goofy tribute, a way of focusing on the positive nature of one man's life rather than on the particulars of his death. I hope it will go on to have many happy adventures around the world.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What things do you do when you're tired of being sad?

Look: there are some very good reasons to feel sad. And I think Western culture unhealthily encourages people to push aside or squelch any emotions it considers negative or unproductive. But after a while of moping or grieving or crying along to sad songs on YouTube, eventually there comes a point where you just don't want to feel sad any more.

What do you do when you reach that point? What are your coping strategies for pushing sadness away for a while?

Some of the things that have worked for me:
  • Work on something creative that doesn't require deep thought (simple knitting, sewing basic patchwork, copy-editing Wikipedia entries)
  • Focus on someone else's problems for a change (volunteering at the food bank, donating needed items to local charities)
  • Exercise
  • Bake cookies (and, in my case, give them away before I'm tempted to eat them)
  • Sleep. A lot.
I could use a few more items on this list, and others probably could too. Please share.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

There's not much I want to say about this...

Remember when I bought the Daruma doll for good luck?

Remember that I said I'd reveal my goal when I colored in the other eye?

Yeah, I might as well tell you now: that goal fell apart yesterday.

I wanted to meet Robin Williams.
Love and condolences to the Williams family, close friends, business associates and all who had the good fortune to know Mr. Williams personally. The world just became a whole lot less fun.

I need to find a good place to burn this.

Friday, August 08, 2014

English is just weird, man.

James Nicoll once famously said of the English-speaking world: "We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." This tendency to shamelessly loot other languages (and to boldly split infinitives if one feels so inclined) has created an overabundance of weirdness in the English language.

For instance, when your friend calls your cell and asks what you're up to, you don't reply with the present-tense structure almost every Romance language follows: "I go to the store." No, English only uses the present tense when it's referring to things you do habitually, as in "I go to the store on Tuesdays." If you want to explain to your friend about your specific, current trip to Trader Joe's, you have to use the present continuous tense and say, "I am going to the store." ...what? Why? Because that's how we do it, is why. Doesn't make a lick of sense. And why is there an extraneous "do" in the phrase "What do you do for a living?" It isn't necessary to make sense of the sentence, but if you leave it out and say "What do you for a living?" it's considered non-standard usage.

Then there are spelling/pronunciation issues. Heaps of them. Since we nick words from all corners of the globe, English rules of spelling and pronunciation (yes, they do exist!) tend to go right out the window. "Cachet," which ought to be pronounced "cash-it" if following English rules, is actually pronounced "ca-shay" since it was borrowed from French. "Nike," the running shoe company, looks like it should rhyme with "bike," but since it's borrowed from the Greek word for victory, it's pronounced "Nigh-key." Likewise, "chimera" looks like it should be pronounced "chim-uh-ra" (and for a very long time I pronounced it that way, not knowing any better), but no, it's another rip-off from Greek: "ky-mare-ah."And in the name of all that is holy, do not get me started on the "ough" combination in English. There are at least ten ways I know of to pronounce this combination of letters (and I've heard each and every one of them, since my surname happens to contain this combination): "uff," "off," "ow," "oh," "aw," "oo," "up," "uh," "ock" and "och." (For the record, the proper pronunciation in our surname is "oh," as in "Oh, I just know I'm going to screw this name up again.")

English plurals are a regular nightmare. Yes, you can add an S to the end of nearly anything and get away with it, but you may have to fiddle around a bit with the stuff that comes before it. If a word ends in a vowel, you usually have to add a silent E as well (tomato = tomatoes). If it ends in an F, you must usually tweak the F to a V (loaf = loaves, half = halves), BUT not always (roof = roofs). Some words don't change at all from singular to plural; you just have to determine which they are from context (sheep, moose, fish, deer). And then there are random plurals (again, borrowed from other languages) like "alumni" and "tableaux" that simply defy description or logic; they just sit there on the page going "THPHPHBPT! Neener!"

Finally, there are a few odd items for which English has no proper word. Consider this: the singular generic term for one animal is a "cat" (plural: "cats.") The male is a "tom," the female a "queen" and the young are "kittens." Now for another common animal: the male is a "bull," the female a "cow" (or if young, a "heifer") and the young are "calves." The plural generic term is "cattle." But what is the singular generic term for one of the commonest farm animals known to man?

Yup. Weird. But I still prefer English over Esperanto.