Archive for June, 2011

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The Psychic Bartender: Face to Face Book

June 30, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

It’s deadly quiet in the bar.  Where are the customers?  Isn’t anybody thirsty?  Ah, right.  They’re home “doing” Facebook.

You can see why Facebook is popular.  It makes personal two of the core themes of American culture: broadcasting and advertising.  It enables you to broadcast your life to an audience, graciously idealizing yourself – and them – through “favorite” photos and edited accounts of everyday news.  Like tattoos and piercings, the process displays you.  It gets you shelf space as friends and other customers troll the aisles of the interpersonal supermarket appreciating “my” familiar and admired products.  You can make yourself a feature page in a virtual number of People magazine.  And it’s a marketplace, a form of eBay, where the transactions can go both ways.

Since the number of your “friends” can be calculated, it keeps score of your expanding personality and its deepening confirmation as folks notice you and confirm that, yes indeedy, you do exist.  In the process you’re expanding the boundaries of your life and maybe forming up your life story by getting in touch with long lost childhood pals.

And unlike the nattering here at the bar, there are no unpleasant reminders of what you don’t want to think about.

You hear praise but also complaints about Facebook in the bar.  It keeps personal life superficial and airbrushed, and it keeps it vicarious.  In massaging your life story for your army of friends, you’re accepting that your personality is an enabling fiction.  In a small way you’re your own PR agent, offering yourself as a local “Lady Gaga” or some other invented celebrity.

To be fair, you do have to keep the fictionalizing within the unspoken limits of manners and polite sanity – though your friends may not have reliable ways of checking up to see if “you” really is the “you” you say are.  Not that you can’t be an attractive liar or sociopath in nose to nose conversation.  The critics fear that you’re making people endlessly distractible and trivial.  They fear that your techno-infatuation over the internet is symptomatic of The End of Robust Real Life. As in the 1890s, the fear is that all this virtual reality and facsimile is making you effete, spineless, and infantile.  Men are no longer real men, and women are – well, you get the picture.

Are the critics onto something?

What do we know?  We’re psychic bartenders, not psychics.  Instead of crystal balls we have only a sink full of unwashed glasses.  What interests us as we rinse the butts out of last night’s glasses is the underlying fear out there that selves are becoming trivialized and emptied out.

In particular we wonder what it means that Facebook seems to be showing us people frantic to celebrate — or prove to the world — that they’re real.  After all, Facebook has become the multibillion dollar device for exclaiming “Look at me!  I exist!  I’m me!”

I know, I know.  You’re wondering if this fear is related to the popular fascination with autism, especially Asperger’s syndrome, in which the sufferer can be “almost” social: capable of facsimile intimacy with you.  Asperger’s folks are “almost” real.  In one direction they’re a marker for our fear that everything’s turning into a facsimile of real life.  If you’re autistic, in theory you can’t understand other people’s motives.  But even with Facebook friends, you have to keep everybody’s motives pretty simple. You airbrush your life to mask some of your embarrassing pimples and shameful motives.

While you were surfing the internet, the Matrix has taken over.  That’s the worry.

Look around you.  Lots of bruising competition for jobs and status in a sick economy.  Whose elbow just bloodied your nose?  The rich and powerful pull a lever and you jump through a hoop to pay the rent.  People who invade other countries and kill education budgets call themselves “conservative.”  The headlines show you “kill team” soldiers — Support Our Troops — grinning over the corpse of an innocent Afghan kid that they bagged like an elephant in order to feel heroic.  The manicured newscaster reports another workplace or schoolyard rampage motivated by WKW  (Who Knows What).  Prime time will spotlight yet another serial murderer who could be living in your garden shed or under your bed.

So yes, maybe the bipeds are all becoming psychopaths or sociopaths or superficiopaths, insensitive to other people.  Maybe our genes are degenerating or poisoned. It’s a street of random killers out there.

And the rage to make things right again can be potent.  If you enjoy rage for revenge, watch Dexter, the autistic TV vigilante, who exacts cruel vengeance on tacitly austistic predators.

But wait a minute.  Maybe this preoccupation with autism and psychos is a sign of our raised expectations.  We live in psychologized societies, with all sorts of reminders to be worried about our mental well-being. We take mood vitamins, psychotropic elixirs, payment holidays.  Erotic life is more explicit and voluptuously advertised than ever before, so of course it’s also more superficial and rubber-stamped, which can give you gnawing hunger pangs and make everyday intimacy a romp with a sex doll or a replay of The Stepford Wives.  Who isn’t worried about “commitment”?

And to add insult to injury, everything is insured these days. You’re continually told that, as the merchandisers put it, everything comes with a “lifetime guarantee.”  If you find that you’re not insured — if you lose you health or your house or your family — you feel like a loser.  You’re a failure.  You’re nobody, socially dead, and maybe enraged enough to go on a rampage like one of those psychos we were just talking about.   Or maybe Facebook will make you feel connected and worthwhile again.

In a way there’s nothing new about the activity.  When have people not advertised themselves?  True, Facebook tends to be trivial, but that’s nothing new either.  Our swapping of little gifts and gossip is a form of grooming such as our primate cousins enjoy.  It relaxes and affirms the ephemeral self of the only animal on the planet that is burdened by awareness that everybody dies and that communication is never more than approximate.  In this sense Facebook is another face of the denial that makes life possible.  So in this bracing context we’re all looking for “lifetime guarantees,” and Facebook is part of the fine print.

The problem of course is that denial always has its limits.  Once you become aware of denial, it’s harder to keep it going.  Once you become aware that the fine print is just fine print, and the warranty is unlikely to save you, then you need some other sort of network to sustain you  — say, friendship, or maybe a spot at the bar, with the other curious customers and your good-natured psychic bartender.

Call it face to face book.

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The Truth

June 24, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Last night I read in “The Shorter Writings of Ernest Becker” (thanks to Dan for putting these shorter pieces together) Becker’s talk on Perls, and though Becker does praise Perls, he thinks Perls has limitations, “important” ones, the most glaring one (hard to overlook if you are a Beckerian) being that Perls overlooked “the haunting anxieties of the human condition.” In short, Becker says that the therapy Perls insists on is essentially worthless in answering the major questions of the human condition–and you know what those problems are as well as I.

I like this short “essay” on Perls. It certainly adumbrates ideas that will be further explored in Denial, one of which is the idea of character as the lie to help us avoid the existential dilemma: “.  . .underneath everything that is at stake in human life, the thing that is really at stake is the problem of terror of this planet.” It’s meet, I think, to recall that when Becker gave this speech,1970, a lot of people thought that the culture was on the verge of solving the woes of the human condition; that is, paradise, an unrepressed, and anxiety-free life was possible–through a new way of looking at the world, or, if you will, through a special kind of therapy. All the best therapy can do, as Becker tells us, is strip away one’s lies and leave one exposed to the almost unbearable terror of existence. For me at least, Becker’s analogy of the person in analysis with the member of AA is an effective one. Both present a new kind of awareness, but it’s hardly a panacea; it’s dark place, where one truly understand that one “has been in effect kicked out of paradise,” that one has finally “come to see the conditions of life on this planet as they really are.” Becker intimates that the best one can hope for is to find oneself a little less “driven.” He does more than intimate; he flatly says it, unambiguously and bluntly. Life is always the problem with living, And of course the person who has ripped away the lie of character sees this truth clearer than anyone else. Is the truth its own comfort? It might be. Still, under the best conditions, the most aware human being is desperately lost, profoundly ignorant, and, at times, terrified by the mystery of both his or her existence and his or her inexorable, unavoidable death.

As far as the existential dilemma is concerned, there is no magic bullet. I think it is to Becker’s great credit that in the late 60s and early 70s he saw through a lot of the nonsense being bruited about, the notion that it was somehow possible for people to avoid or solve the vexations of life, its inherent miseries. The messiahs of this era cried out in praise of the body, that we should be polymorphously perverse, unrepressed in our sexual activity. Rejecting reason and restraint, these voices celebrated the flesh. Becker flatly states we cannot have sex without guilt—and the reason why, of course, is that sex, gild it how you will, is of the body, and the body is corruptible flesh.

Becker in some ways reminds me of Emily Dickinson (a far-fetched comparison to be sure). Dickinson once looked out the window of her home and as she watched the people of Amherst traverse the streets, walking and riding in wagons, she turned to her brother, Austin, and asked without any irony: “How do those people live without thinking?” What she was asking was “How do they carry on with all the terror in the world?” Well, they lied to themselves. Dickinson couldn’t lie to herself. She instinctively saw the truth of the human condition. Her ego was strong enough for her to live with the truth.

But here’s the point: the truth did not solve her problems, somehow lift her above the common struggling of what it means to be human. Her truth provided her no paradise. With no lies to sustain her, she was left to face the hard truth, and she did face the truth, with courage and genius. She no doubt, as Becker says, could “start looking at things a little more pristinely.” She possessed too, without a doubt, a “more authentic awareness.” But did she find the elusive answers to the riddle of life? No. Did she avoid suffering? No. She might have suffered more. In one poem she speaks of being put down into life, as if it were a room without doors. Despair is not to be avoided; it is to be dealt with. I think Becker is right: life is untenable from the beginning. It is an examination for which no answers exist.

We are still stuck on the fundamental question: why is there something rather than nothing? The other day I sat at my kitchen table and read an article about the immensity of the universe, the billions and billons of stars in the billions and billions of galaxies. I looked out the kitchen window and saw the family’s fat cat, Hillary, lying on the sidewalk. She lay upon her back, her ample belly exposed to the sun, and while she lay supine there, she moved her front paws as if trying to seize the impalpable and incorporeal air itself. The image of a self-conscious creature watching the cat in the sun stunned me more than stories of infinity, of space stretching forever and forever. Good God, if there can be a grain of sand, there can be anything.

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Rich Irrelevancies and Contradictions

June 20, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

And so, for Kierkegaard, the ‘”good” is the  opening toward new possibility
and choice, the ability to face the anxiety; the closed is the evil, that which turns one away from newness and broader perceptions and experiences; the closed shuts our revelation, obtrudes a veil between the person and his own situation in the world.

Ernest Becker in Denial of Death, p. 72

 

The Dane

He had seen, he thought, too many of the
hard, bright, cold, fast-darkening winter days,
but this bright Sunday afternoon was splendid,
the brief kiss of Scandinavian summer
nuzzling at the ear of Copenhagen.

This afternoon he sat alone in the
Fredriksberg Garden, smoking a cigar,
as was his habit, and turning over
many things in his imagination,
that lambent flame playing over the world.

He reflected that as yet he had made
no career for himself, yet men sitting
all around him were already established,
most of them smiling benefactors,
all their efforts directed at making
life easier for the rest of mankind.

These men built great cities and institutions,
the great plazas and comfortable churches;
their voices announced the end of chaos,
and the arrival of a new Eden,
the longed for apotheosis of  man,
the banishment of dread and anxiety.

But undergirding all this bright progress,
the thin, hump-backed and spindle-legged man
thought as he sat alone smoking his cigar,
was the idea that rational thought
could make spiritual existence easier,
purge man of his hungry demons,
make finite man serene beneath dark skies,
deliver mankind to theology
as easily as the aproned butcher
slaughtered the plump hog and sold the sausage
to the bourgeois housewife in his clean shop.

His cigar burnt down; he lit another.
He rolled the cigar between his thin lips
and looked hard at the fat, smug men about him,
all of them concerned with making life easy.

Perhaps, he thought, it is time for a man
to disdain the easy and make life hard again,
time for one to expose the easy conscience
of an age convinced of material
progress and intellectual enlightenment.

Scalded by loneliness, he knew there can
be no encounter with the self in the
detachment of thought. No, encounter comes
through the bitter despair of either-or,
comes to the harrowed soul alone in the night,
naked under distant blazing stars.

And the Dane arose and left the Garden,
his fate as clear as Copenhagen summer sky.
_______________________________

Dr. Elgee and I have been talking a little about Kierkegaard. K., says Dr. Elgee, was extremely dysfunctional. I think K. is too religious for Dr. Elgee. Dr. Elgee, lest we forget, is, au fond, a hard-nosed scientist, though I often think he has the soul of a poet.

Yes, our poor Dane was indeed dysfunctional, as was Nietzsche. Frankly, their botched lives bother me. Damn it all, the older I get the more I understand that life must be lived, then thought about, and even then I don’t know whether the perplexing position in which we find ourselves can be understood. One must, I guess, hope for small particles of insight, quick moments of illumination.

I find myself–within limits—on Freud’s side (as silly at this sounds, this being “on someone’s side”), not so much in his ideas (Becker shows how wrong-headed Freud is) but in the way he lived his life. I don’t know–I really don’t–considering the human condition that one can do a better job that Freud did in his passage through the quotidian, the days and months and years, his time running toward its fated end, his stoicism at his end, his understanding that life had no solution, only ways of adapting. A lot of people forget that near the end of DoD Becker says it doesn’t make much difference whether one comes down on the side of Kierkegaard or Freud. Here’s what Becker says: “…if we take Kierkegaard’s life as a believing Christian and put it up against Freud’s as an agnostic, there is no balance sheet to draw.” K., adds Becker, “failed in life,” K.’s life being “not a voluntary sacrifice in free will, but a pathetically driven sacrifice. He did not live in the categories in which he thought.” Does any man?

So how does one choose between “scientific creatureliness and religious creatureliness”? Well, you know Becker’s answer, I suspect, by heart: “The most one can achieve is a certain relaxedness, an openness to experience that makes him less of a driven burden on others.” A point perhaps to make is that Freud’s life was in most ways we measure the simple living of a life  more satisfactory than Kierkegaard’s. I fancy that both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard seem a bit hysterical at times. Freud never does. I don’t know who’s right. I am just trying to live a life here, and, alas, not doing, or so it seems to me, a very good job at it. We all seem to mess up in this regard. It could be–you tell me–that a man who is profoundly conscious of individuality within finitude always limps a bit in the run through life. And yet Kierkegaard was a great thinker, much of his analyses unassailable. I always put down Becker with more sorrow in my heart than was there when I picked him up–but, then, I wouldn’t have missed reading him for anything.

Strange the things that come to a man; today when I walked my dog at the park, I thought–I cannot tell you why–of Wordsworth’s great intimations ode. In it he says the child comes into this world not utterly naked but comes, rather, trailing “clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home.” As the boy grows older, the “shades of the prison house begin to close” around  him. The boy loses the “vision” and it “fade[s] into the light of common day.” The poem, says Lionel Trilling, is about growing up. I think so. Wordsworth hints that it’s sad, somehow, that we have to grow up and lose the childlike wonder we once had in the world. Wordsworth forgets to mention that the “wonder” comprises a lot of terror and frantic anxiety–the Boogie Man under the bed. Childhood is vastly overrated.

I don’t think we come into this world trailing clouds of glory (Becker refutes this notion, it seems to me, in his conclusion of chapter 4 of DoD, in his comments on the English poet Thomas Traherne). In truth, the repression of the child is all that saves the child from sheer terror and chaos–or, if you will, madness. A child does not live in paradise. I don’t think, really, Wordsworth is right to call the child “a prophet,” a creature knowing truths the rest of us, as we grow up, work all of our lives to acquire. What truths? If a child–I am speculating now– is awe-struck, he is terrified, reminded, albeit unconsciously perhaps, that he is impotent and powerless. A man, on the other hand, is awe-struck in a different way. He is sublime in a way a child never is. A wise man will hope to find the sacred and the awe-inspiring in his life.

Wordsworth looks back on childhood with a false nostalgia, as if it would be wonderful for us to live forever as children, which implies of course that we are watched over by some authority. We grow up though (Wordsworth seems to accept this as a given) and being grown up we have to accept responsibility, but Wordsworth to his credit enjoins us not to grieve, to find “the soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering; / In the faith that looks through death, / In years that bring the philosophic mind.” I venture to say that in some way Wordsworth was “happier” than either Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or Freud, though Wordsworth knew as much about suffering as anybody (his children died, his brother drowned, his sister went mad–the standard list for the time, for any time actually). From what I know of Wordsworth’s life, his life, the actual living of it, did not live up the ecstasies he writes about in his poems. One should never confuse a poem with a life–or confuse life with a philosophical treatise. Says Ovid, “Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor,” meaning, “I see and approve the better course, but follow the worse.” It’s a venial failing, and, for sure, it’s a ubiquitous one. We need no classical Roman poet to tell us “the rich irrelevancies and contradictions by which men live.”

What is the point? you may be asking, and, even admitting brevity is not my strong point, I guess I’d say that my point is that thing, to me at least, Becker alludes to over and over again (so does Robert Frost): and that is we must look for little victories in life. A lot of people want the big cure, the panacea. There is no great cure, no panacea. We are in the soup, sister!

Then what can one do? Well, one can do what Becker says one should do: one can admit the human condition is insoluble, that we are fated to live in a kind of hell, but that we do have a few choices in how we adapt to this sanguinary hell (all the tearing and gorging and excreting) in which we find ourselves. We can start with the truth: not a damn thing makes sense: it’s possible humanity has probably no purpose, the heavens are stitched to our pleading eyes, we are at bottom creatures, self-conscious ones for sure, but animals all the same, creature fated to die and vanish once more into nothingness, into eternal oblivion. The world is grotesque and absurd. It’s more, of course, but fundamentally it’s grotesque and absurd.

I don’t see any way around our having to accept the truth if we are to assure ourselves that we aren’t going to make other people miserable in our attempts to repress the truth. God, here’s to people who are easy to live with. I have pretty much said, “To hell with you” with those in my life who aren’t. One can try to relax with the truth, be grateful for the experience of life, though the experience could turn ugly at any moment and will, eventually, kill us–if only of old age. We don’t need to live driven lives (what, I wonder, is a “driven life”?). It is, I understand, this living of a relaxed and undriven life, much easier said than done. One can write like an angel but one must live as a man. Samuel Johnson says in the Life of Milton, “We are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance.” On a fundamental level, we are perpetually self-conscious creatures, irrevocably so and nothing we do to obscure this truth, whether chance or intent makes us geometricians or doctors or pedantic professors, will avail. Ah, there’s the rub!

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The Psychic Bartender

June 17, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Problem # 31 — sexual intoxication

A Congressman comes into the bar, drops his pants, and shows everybody:

1. a cellphone photograph of his majority whip, or

2.  a screaming headline about his magic wand, with photo, or

3. the real thing.

From our perspective as psychic bartenders, this behavior is no surprise.  As the global popularity of online porn demonstrates, the bipeds are generally interested in looking at — and showing off — their bodies.  Consider the mania for tattoos and chunks of metal stuck into flesh like thumbtacks on a bulletin board.  Just in case anyone has doubts, a tasteful tattoo of an aardvark or a miniature silver doorknob affixed to your nose says, “Look at me.  I’m me.  I matter.”

But a Congressman?  The guy has fought like a tiger to get to the seat of power.  He’s now connected to the ruling class of this democracy.  And here he is flashing his pecker, his majority whip, in the bar or in tweets to young women he may never get to know in the biblical sense.

The US media greet this news with howls of derision and scorn and a pinch of envy.  The guy puts a brave face on it  — yes, he’s just one of many politicians caught (ahem) with his pants down — but it’s likely to be a political death sentence all the same.

What gives?

Okay, we don’t know what hang-ups the man may have at home.  It could be simply that clothing fibers irritate his sensitive skin.

Nah.

More likely he’s acting out motives you and I would find familiar if it weren’t for (ugh) denial.  Here we are in a nasty economic slump, with no major new relief in sight and politics is conflicted, tainted, and impotent.  That sound you hear at the bar is teeth chattering not ice in the glasses.  Drink up.  What do we want?  More life.  More potency.  More fertility.  More future.  More self-esteem.

Exhibitionism advertises potency.  The congressman isn’t going to spawn promiscuous millions of descendents like Genghis Khan. He’s in a heroic role.  He’s campaigned on a promise to rescue us from misery.  He wants comely lasses to desire him, praise him, prove his worth.  Why?

For one thing, because politicians despised as well as loved and envied.  The job advertises power and costs a fortune, but its deadlocked, abuzz with crazy, selfish, juvenile squabbles.  If you’re not happily lobotomized, the pressure to prove yourself must be excruciating.  You want to save the world, and you know you’re impotent.  So you show the world your magic wand, your skin-toned charisma.  And you want to believe you’re a bigshot and therefore entitled to special fertility.  In a way stripping is just campaigning by other means.

If you have electronic carrier pigeons (tweet tweet tweet) taking your picture into the beyond, you’re multiplying yourself.  Literally, there’s more of you, and everywhere, like the gods and heroes of legend.

Yes yes, it’s risky.  Like the teenager in Oregon whose nude come-on to a prospective boyfriend went viral on the internet, self-expansion can arouse savage policing.  For a congressman it’s so risky it’s tacitly a death wish, which doesn’t surprise us here at the bar because self-destruction gives more total relief from stress than tequila or thousand dollar an hour romps with Tawnia at the cathouse.  If you’re secretly afraid that your heroism is inadequate, even a shame, it’s an escape.

The appetite for more life is everywhere.  It soothes the fear of death and futility that hurts your feelings in those unguarded moments.  The problem is, the fear of death lasts longer than the Eveready bunny or the potent congressional hard-on.  So the appetite for more life is always potentially intoxicating.  Nobody ever gets enough.  The more you have, the greater your fear of losing it.  The higher up you go, the farther you can fall.

Worse, the behavior gets slammed as sex, but it’s actually not very sexual at all.  Performing for the camera, it’s like Jared Loughner, the Tucson assassin, shooting pics of himself in the nude just before his rampage.  If you’re broadcasting via tweets, flirting at such a distance, you’re actually pursuing sex with yourself.  There’s nobody there.  That sort of aloneness of course is another kind of stress that  invites even more exhibitionism.

If you’re in politics, you see (ahem) intimately how out of control things are, and how limited our understanding.  Think of economic mayhem, rogue banks, corporate military bingeing, imperial overreach, Enron criminality, peak oil and resource wars, the new Chinese aircraft carrier, the Tyrannosaurus jaws of unemployment.  No wonder you’re both scared to death and gleeful as you drop your drawers here in the saloon and say to the psychic bartender:

“Psst, hey buddy.  Look at me.  I’m heroic.  I’m me.  I’m immortal.”

You and I of course see knobby knees and a touch of flab as well as the usual ambitious, silly-looking hominid hard-on.  But we’re psychic bartenders.  We’re looking for ways to sober up the bigshot, prevent fistfights, and turn that greed for life into an appetite for problem-solving.

The suggestion box is on the wall.  Please write legibly.

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A Call for Songs

June 13, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

A call for papers is a standard way of generating interest and scholarship for a given academic subject. With this post I’d like to suggest something a little different, namely, a call for songs. By this I mean a call to enlist artists of all types to engage with the insights of Ernest Becker and thereby move said insights to a broader audience. Note that this call isn’t directed to the artists themselves, but rather to each of us, whether an artist or not. I myself am not an artist. Perhaps in my next incarnation. Nevertheless, I owe my initial exposure to Becker to the film Flight From Death, most certainly a great piece of art. Imagine the possible impact of a popular song or a great piece of poetry or visual art. There is certainly plenty of room in the non-documentary film category. What about theater? Imagine a Beckerian reworking of some Shakespeare. The possibilities are endless.

Here is a great example of what I’m talking about. A couple from Australia, Adrian and Francesca Bell, have written a children’s book that is premised on the notion that mortality salience is our primary repression. It is entitled Mother Moth and acknowledges Ernest Becker in the front material of the book. The fact that this material is aimed at a relatively young audience is wonderful because learning through stories comes naturally to us all. A work like Mother Moth is the artistic spoonful of sugar that helps Becker’s medicine go down. You can get a feel for Mother Moth at the following site:

http://www.mother-moth.com/index.html

Returning to our role in calling forth the songs, how do we decide who to call? This is the easy part. The artist you should call is the one you know—the one next to you at the pub, the concert, the gallery event. This process has a very serendipitous aspect to it. A bit like the parable of the sower, we have no way of knowing where our work will find fertile soil. The novelist Tom Robbins found his literary voice when he attended and reviewed a concert by The Doors. Within two weeks of seeing them he had begun his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction. Who could have predicted that? Similarly, given the power of Becker’s work, if enough of us make a conscious effort to engage artists there is no telling what fruit it will bear. There’s an artist out there waiting for you. Happy hunting!

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Bob

June 10, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Over the years I am sure most of my friends have heard me mention Bob Gettings (a pseudonym). I used to work with him, before he, five years older than I, retired over ten years ago.

Bob was the kind of man, one very much like my father, who could do anything, from repairing a blown cylinder in an automobile engine to installing a ceiling fan, from complicated carpenter work to extensive landscaping. If something possessed moving parts Bob understood how it worked and could repair it when it malfunctioned. He was not a bookish man (he, in charge of maintenance at an institution, once sent out a memo complaining about “wreckless” driving in the parking lot), but on practical matters, the solid things of this world, the corporeal, Bob could disassemble them and then put them back together. He had the kind of intelligence I admire; he was the epitome of competence. There just didn’t seem anything he couldn’t do. He seemed to know always where the fish were biting. I am no angler, not at all, but Bob and his pals knew every nook and cranny of the river, the tannin-stained ebony waters of which run nearby, the dark waters where the red breasts and bream thrive. For some reason his garden always grew the biggest tomatoes and the best-tasting cucumbers.

The last time I saw Bob was about eighteen months ago. My wife and I had new carpet laid in the upstairs bedroom. It looked great; the only problem was that the bedroom door wouldn’t close, the new carpet effectively having raised the level of the floor. I called Bob, asked him for a solution and his help. He came around to the house, solved the problem easily. He and I removed the door (even a ham-fisted klutz like me can do something this simple), took it outside where Bob laid it upon two sawhorses. Having already measured how much the door needed to be trimmed, he marked the bottom of the door with a pencil and then with an electric saw proceeded to cut off about an inch or so of the door. We took the door back upstairs, fitted it into its  hinges, and, eureka!, we had a door that opened and closed smoothly. The entire job took less than ten minutes.

I lost track of Bob after that. I lost a piece of paper with all his and his wife’s phone numbers, both the house phone number and the numbers of their cell phones. Bob’s not the kind of man to make a casual call; he was not going to call me. Bob does not own a computer, finds e-mail as alien as a kid would find an old Underwood typewriter. All their numbers are unlisted. Besides, I knew Bob and his wife were trying to sell their house. I thought perhaps they had sold it and perhaps moved, to another location here in the city or to a new city.

A few weeks ago, though, on my way home from a doctor’s appointment, I, for the first time in a long, long time, found myself in Bob’s general neighborhood. I thought, since it was not all that much out of the way, I’d drive by his home. I saw his white truck parked in the driveway and an old man whom Bob had befriended some years ago doing some gardening work in the front yard. I thought I’d stop, see whether Bob was home. Pulling into the driveway and getting out of my truck, I asked the old man whether Bob was home. The old man told he told he was. “Just go knock on the back door,” he told me.

I did. Dogs barked. I called, “Bob, are you in there?” I heard a voice shush the dogs, two poodles eyeing and barking at me through the screen door. The main door was open. Thinking the voice Bob’s, I simply pulled open the screen door and stepped into the house. I saw Bob standing in the middle of his den. He stood, blankly staring at me, though at the time I thought nothing of it, and I, in loud, boisterous bonhomie, said “How you been doin’, buddy?”

I then noticed that Bob looked different, as if puzzled or confused. The first thing he said to me was “they think I’ve got dementia. They won’t let me drive anymore.” I stood there, you can imagine, stupefied. I hadn’t gotten the hello I expected, the “how you doin’ yourself?” the big smile, an indication of his genuine delight at seeing me. When I asked what in God’s name was going on, Bob said about three or four months ago he woke up one morning and could not remember anything.

“You couldn’t remember anything?” I asked. Surely, I thought, he must be wrong or at the least wildly exaggerating.

He wasn’t.

“I couldn’t figure out where I was, what I was supposed to do, didn’t know whether I was to get out of bed or not,” he said.

We talked, and it didn’t take me long to discern that Bob’s memory was indeed failing, failing badly. He told me that just before I had arrived, the old man couldn’t start the lawnmower and that he, Bob, knew exactly what the problem was but that when he got to the lawnmower he found he had forgotten what he needed to do to make the machine fire up. He seemed both disgusted at himself and, at the same time, terribly afraid. A great deal of his conversation, as he attempted to explain to me what was going on with him, what doctors he had seen, where, what they had said, what medication he was taking, had no thread that I could follow. He said at one point, when his failed memory was painfully obvious even to him, “It looks like I’m losing my mind.”

I finally asked him, “Bob, do the doctors think you have something like Alzheimer’s?” He confirmed that, yes, they do. I was finally able to gather from his wandering talk that this diagnosis was the result of a battery of tests lasting four hours. Bob took these tests at a major university’s medical center. Bob failed the tests, most of which test memory retention. By this point I didn’t need test results to know that Bob was severely afflicted with major memory loss, living in a murky world of confusion and fear. I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic when I say it is an awful thing to behold a person on the cusp of mental ruin. Seen from a distance such a catastrophe prompts philosophical talk, Beckerian queries into what is the definition of “character” and what happens to the “I” when the brain is no longer aware of any “I”? Seen up close, however, this inexorable ruin ravaging its devastating and gluttonous way through a human mind fills us with both terror and compassion.

This man who was once so confident, so self-assured, a man with a firm voice and a steady hand, had become timid, his eyes full of fear, his voice full of confusion and uncertainty. It was hard to bear. I could clearly see that Bob was doing his best to persuade me (or himself, or both of us) that he was OK, but he’s not OK. When I told him I wanted to write down his phone number, he, pointing to a table, indicated a pencil and a pad lying there.  When I asked him for his home phone number, he didn’t, at first, remember it. He gave me a number. Then he said, “No, that’s not right.” He told me two or three numbers. After a while, he thought he’d given me the correct number. I don’t know whether he did or not.

I had to go home, take my dog to the park for his walk. I said good-bye to Bob, who, trying to smile, said, “Well, I’ve had a great life. I can’t complain. I will just take one day at a time.”

Then he seemed to remember that he might have prostate cancer. He quit smiling, told me that he was scheduled to have a biopsy (he couldn’t find the word “biopsy,” so I provided it) of his prostate in a few days. I didn’t pursue this topic, and he seemed to quickly forget it as he talked to the dogs, told them to “hush.” Once again I said good-bye, and I left.

I’d subsequently find out that Bob does indeed have prostate cancer, a virulent, aggressive kind. The doctors, fearing the cancer has metastasized into his bones, have scheduled an MRI to try to find out the extent of the malignancy.

A few days later Bob’s wife, having found out about my visit to see Bob, called me. She told me that Bob had been officially diagnosed with dementia, the doctor telling her, “You are in for some hard times.” His wife told me that the doctor told her that dementia works its woe faster than does Alzheimer’s.

Further testing on Bob’s prostate, she added, revealed that the cancer had spread. The gland will have to be removed and after this Bob will have either chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Perhaps both. I don’t know. I don’t know how rapidly dementia will usurp most of Bob’s mind. His wife told me that Bob seems only vaguely aware he has a dangerous case of prostate cancer.

She said, “What am I going to do?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”

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And when did you stop beating your wife…?

June 6, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Well, May 21st came and went, without occurrence of The Rapture, as famously predicted by Harold Camping (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Camping). As rumor has it, Camping has reset the date for sometime in October. All of this seems very strange to most people, and in general we assume that the plausibility of any belief system is inversely proportional to the number of people who hold it as true. But to those caught up in this Rapture and End of the World belief system, the very enormity of the rejection and dismissal by outsiders is taken as further evidence for the correctness of the belief itself.

Are we really so immune to this intellectual move, a move summoned to rationalize the reality that we see in order to ameliorate the cognitive dissonance caused by having our view rejected by others? For many strict Freudians, the only motive that anyone could possibly have for rejecting the Oedipal theory is that the person were still laboring under the strains of an unresolved Oedipal Complex. The more vociferously opponents argued against and rejected the theory, the more their rejection demonstrated the correctness of the theory to those who held it as true. This would be true of any theory that contains as part of the theory itself an explanation for why people might be expected to resist the truth of the theory. As in the line of inquiry, “And just when did you stop beating your wife…?” the conclusion is contained in the premise. There is an undeniably stop element of this in Ernest Becker’s ideas on death anxiety/immortality striving as a root motivational strategy in human behavioral psychology (what I have called the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety.) It is very easy to slip into a mode of thinking in which someone’s opposition or rejection of the theory is interpreted as an exhibition of “denial.”

Having spent much of my early scholarly career investigating all kinds of strange, sectarian belief systems and trying to understand how it could be that people could hold to these beliefs, I am naturally suspicious of any statement that assumes a logic of “the more people think it is ridiculous, the more true it must be!” Nevertheless, it is clear that really profound theories, theories that strongly question much of what people take as “common sense,” cannot be expected to find immediate assent in the marketplace of ideas. So how can we navigate this potential conflict responsibly? Here is my suggestion.

1) Make oneself as familiar as possible with Terror Management Theory. TMT is composed of empirical studies built on Becker’s basic ideas and, after 20-plus years of research, these studies have been showing Becker’s ideas to be very robust in laboratory testing. This alone places Becker’s work on par with the best of any depth-psychological theories available, and a cut or two (or twenty) above most of them.

2) Cultivate a view of Becker’s work as a broadly connecting theory and resist the temptation of diagnosing “death denial” every time someone sneezes. Undoubtedly, on the everyday level, there are much more simple and convincing explanations for most human behavior. On that level, the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety will be no more convincing that these other perspectives, and often seem much more distant and abstract by direct comparison. GDA Theory begins to demonstrate its power and utility as we try to find some basis for unifying these more partial theories to see what they might have in common. If we reflexively pull out the death denial theory to explain every little human behavioral frailty, it starts to look more like an ideology than as a robust theory.