ALCStudies Journal

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Tag Archives: Depression

It’s a Wonderful Lonely Life

The search for community and love with our fellow human beings (at least the ones who are not trying to kill us) is a hallmark1 of the season. This accounts for the popularity of films such as It’s A Wonderful Life. Nevertheless, the effort to pathologize normal human emotion and behavior marches on. On December 1st the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a 3-million dollar CMU study funded by the NIH on ways to help older adults feel less lonely. In the same issue it reported a federal suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for improper incarceration of mentally-ill prisoners; including the use of solitary confinement. There is some connection here — or perhaps disconnection.

It is part of life to lose friends and loved ones through death, time and alienation. But apparently the way to address the problem in this age of connected isolation2 is no longer to have people who know and accept us to talk to us, pat us on the back, share a cup of coffee, kiss us on the cheek, or more (if we are romantically inclined). It’s to learn to meditate the loneliness away. Quoting David Creswell, the expert overseeing the CMU study, the Post Gazette states:

… the number of lonely older adults may be increasing, putting their overall health at greater risk, but the way to help them isn’t necessarily to connect them to more people.

The Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of psychology, funded with a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health announced Monday, hopes that training people in better relaxation and coping techniques will reduce their perception of being lonely.

Each of us is wired with a different need and capacity for being alone. The solitude of Thoreau and Muir and eastern religious mystics is not for everyone. Indeed, in this hyperconnected age of crowdsourcing, solitude itself has become suspect. Therefore, it’s enlightening to know that a problem that philosophers like Buddha and artists from Nietzsche and Kafka to Van Gogh have struggled with for thousands of years is simply one of perception. 

You’d think the widespread adoption of social networking applications like Facebook and Twitter over the Internet would help. But, as Olivia Laing writes in The Future of Loneliness in the Guardian:

 … the contact this produces is not the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person – ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready

It can be difficult enough to endure or learn to accept loneliness if we are mentally whole and emotionally intact (a relative proposition). How much worse if we are imprisoned and isolated with schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder. Yet in the absence of community resources and adequate policy, the mentally ill are generally shunned by society3. Mentally prisoners who have completed their sentence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania often remain in jail. Some have been placed in solitary confinement.  

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania announced the suit Monday on behalf of Stephen Kline, 25, a onetime Allegheny County resident who now is an inmate at Mifflin County Jail; Gabriel Gamble, 30, a patient at Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County; and Matthew Christy, 26, a patient at Warren State Hospital in Warren County… 

The suit claims the state does not have enough beds in community-care programs for all of those needing autism and mental health services — more than 1,000 are waiting — and that people in jails and state hospitals face special obstacles to community care.

In 2013, the Disability Rights Network sued the Department of Corrections, alleging that the state misused solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners. The state took corrective action..

Literature and popular culture abound with references to the plight of loneliness: 

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
Alone Again, Naturally, Gilbert o’ Sullivan
Only the Lonely, Roy Orbison

Have we forgotten Robin Williams and his death only last year? As his character The World’s Greatest Dad states:

“I used to think the worst thing in life is to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”

We conveniently overlook the fact that gathering to celebrate the season of light and fellowship around the winter solstice originated in the need to to prepare for the long dark night together. Our hopes and fears is not just a phrase from a Christmas song. Can you identify the following excerpt from another holiday favorite?

When you’re alone, alone in the world…when you’re alone in the world.
Blown away leaves get blown in the world…swirled away leaves get swirled.
Listening to your heels as you walk, making a lonely clack.
You don’t know how it feels when you talk and nobody’s voice talks back
.4

I challenge you to read or listen to this without feeling a tear coming on.

All Is Forgiven

In It’s A Wonderful Life George Bailey’s penury, loneliness and imminent arrest bring him to the brink of suicide. At the end of the film when hope is restored (along with the missing eight thousand dollars), George’s brother, Harry, toasts him as ‘the richest man in town’. Harry does not toast George’s mastery of meditation and relaxation techniques to cope with loneliness. He toasts the fact that George’s friends and neighbors gathered around him in his time of need. They didn’t update their Facebook page, send tweets and begin Kickstarter campaigns. They showed up. — DA

1With a small h.

3Often due to policies designed to protect their rights. Listen to the enlightening WESA 12/10 interview with PA Congressman Tim Murphy , himself trained as a mental health professional.

4Click the link to read and hear this song with lyrics by Jules Styne and Bob Merrill (who went on to write music for Funny Girl).

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The Chaos of Others

What rough beast … Slouches toward Bethlehem ? — W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Pittsburgh opened its arms, er paws, last week to the Anthrocon convention. The Furries came to town in rags, tags and velvet gowns. The event was a testament to the region’s diversity and tolerance. It also brought in a ton of money.

Ten years ago, the same week as the Furries’ arrival in Pittsburgh, terrorists’ bombs went off in London. Fifty-six people on subways, trains and buses died. Hundreds were injured. All to defend religious belief and identity. 

Open a newspaper or a website and chaos arrives at your virtual doorstep: news from nowhere and everywhere. The world is a scary, confusing place filled with sound and fury (as well as furry). One week it’s a misguided young man in Memphis shooting folks at a church; the next refugees fleeing Somalia. 

We work hard to convince ourself the world is orderly nonetheless. We tell ourselves stories in order to live — myths to impose structure and meaning. We cannot help seeking the sermon in the suicide, wrote Joan Didion (who also wrote an essay inspired by Yeat’s poem.)

We seek solace in technologies that allow us to control nature1 while subverting our better natures. People stare at their smartphones on the bus or subway or while driving as if gazing into a Delphic oracle. In a high-tech society where we purport to make rational, scientific decisions based on statistics and datamining, online fantasy games and graphic novels about magical worlds are increasingly popular.

Given the above, the fact that people pursue drugs like marijuana and heroin as a pathway to an alternate reality is no surprise, though no less pernicious.

Or, one can live in a part-time fantasy world, dressing up in costumes, uttering spells and engaging in strange rituals with others of similar beliefs. Religious dogma offers consolation with the condition that we buy into whatever story is told by those in authority that reassures us we are among the elect.

Soccer, baseball and other sports fans know this as well. Pittsburgh Steelers football fans dress in black and gold and go tailgating.

What if some people deal with the chaos around them and in their own lives by impersonating cats, dragons and other creatures and wearing a tail?

Personally, I’m a fan of humor. In the film Duck Soup a country (not Greece, but just sayin’) goes to war to pay its debts. The Marx Brothers turn the considerable chaos and danger of their 1930s world of Hitler and Mussolini and fascism on its head. Look, they say, this silly stuff can’t hurt you. Look how absurd. Shakespeare does that in plays from Midsummer Night’s Dream to Twelfth Night.

Illustration by Erin Fletcher. For more information please go to http://erinsartportfolio.blogspot.com/2014/02/pandoras-box-illustration.html

Comics like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams open the Pandora’s box of our identity (with the emphasis on Id) and allow us to peek briefly at the darker angels of our natures2 — little Grendels aching to get out and smash the world or blow it up. Dancing on the knife edge of sense and nonsense led each of them to the edge of sanity and beyond. Do we forget their loss so cheaply?

What is mental illness but a mind overwhelmed with chaos? Maybe depression, schizophrenia and other maladies are alternate stories a desperate mind tells itself to make sense of the world.3 Our treatments address the damaged neurochemistry or faulty wiring while still ignoring the suffering spirit. The rest of us may be deluded, or stupid, or heavily medicated, but we manage to keep our suffering – and that of others — at arms length. Compassion requires entering, or at least acknowledging, the chaos in others. This is uncomfortable and scary, because it echoes the potential or actual chaos within each of us as individuals and societies. But if we fail to do so, chaos grows, takes on a life of its own and perpetuates evil. Like terrorists blowing up subways, trains and buses, or shooting strangers.

If the alternative is dressing like anthropomorphic creatures and strutting around town, I’ll serve the FriskiesTM. — CDL

1See John McPhee’s The Control of Nature

2 Not to say Weeping Angels

3 Read Susan Sontag’s llness as Metaphor

What’s Old Is New: ‘The Thin Man’ in the ‘Burgh Dec. 15th & 16th

In 1934 the fiscal cliff wasn’t just looming. The country had fallen off the edge five years before. Oklahoma was suffering through dust storms of Biblical proportion.  John Steinbeck was taking notes on Okies fleeing to the promised land of California, only to be turned away. Woody Guthrie was singing for hobos and migrant workers (the lowest of the ninety-nine percent then) and starting to wonder whose land it was.

That year a film called The Thin Man appeared, based on a story by Dashiell Hammett. Cinema-goers suffering through the Depression were treated to glamour and glitter mixed in with the seamier side life — all leavened with a healthy dose of  humor.  Nick Charles  is a ‘retired’ and restless former gumshoe married to Nora, a rich heiress. Nick and Nora engage in playful  repartee that any married couple might envy today, as Nora tries to persuade her husband to return to sleuthing and ‘detecting’; things he enjoyed doing and did well (and which presumably attracted her to him).

For the live radio adaptation Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies is sponsoring December 15th and 16th at the Carnegie Library of Homestead, we have brought Nick and Nora to the Smokey City (as it was before Renaissance I and II), where actor William Powell, who played Nick in the film, was born. Rather than the Normandie in New York City, we put them up in a suite at the William Penn in downtown Pittsburgh during the week between Christmas and New Year. If Nora had taken a different path in life, she might have mingled with the Mellons, Scaifes and other members of Pittsburgh’s one percent. With Nick, however, she is introduced to sandwiches with French fries ‘that truck drivers eat’ and pierogies. She meets the lowlifes and high-fliers he  worked with as a detective in the Rocks and on the Hill, or sent up the river (or perhaps rivers, since there are three in Pittsburgh). Nora adores her Nicky and the ‘lovely people’ he knows, hoodlums and society dames with rough edges and false charm. A surprising equality exists between Nick & Nora. She is at least his equal in wit and repartee – if not in her ability to put away martinis.

The original story is a good bit grittier than the film it inspired, and presents a stew of murder, intrigue and archetypes which Hammett (along with Raymond Chandler) originated. These have become staples to the present day in detective novels, film noir and television shows such CSI.  They include an eccentric scientist, a gold digger, an egghead/nerd and hard-boiled cops. ‘You got types?’ Nora asks Nick. ‘Only pretty brunettes with wicked jaws,’ he wisely replies. To these we’ve taken the liberty of  adding a few yinzers, jagoffs, n’ ‘at.

'Waiter, please serve the jagoffs.'‘Waiter, please serve the jagoffs.’ (L-R John Seibel, Chuck Lanigan, Mark Tierno, Jon Rohlf from the TMP cast)

Characters imbibe alcohol prodigiously in both the movie and the novella. The latter, which Hammett first serialized in (of all places) Redbook Magazine contains an undertone of dissipation and boredom, if not desperation, befitting the times. Ingénues take their first precipitous step toward ruin (speaking of cliffs). Relationships have soured. Bodies rot beneath the concrete floor. The film plays it all for laughs and adventure. Most of the lowlifes and jagoffs have hearts of gold, and we go along. Except for a single line from Dorothy in the beginning about her concern for people losing their jobs, you would hardly know there was a Depression.

In 1934 Pittsburgh was suffering the economic ravages with the rest of the country. People on their way to the Fulton (now the Byham) to attend the film passed their neighbors selling apples and standing in line at soup kitchens (and perhaps did so themselves). There were a few bright notes:  Prohibition had just been lifted. Duquesne Gardens in the East End was scene of sporting events such as Hornets ice hockey and prize fights. ‘Winter Wonderland’ appeared on the charts that year. By that date populist preacher Father Coughlin was broadcasting to 30-million people  and the first live radio orchestra broadcast had debuted from the William Penn. Wylie Avenue in the Hill hosted jazz luminaries such as Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams, Earl Hines and Billy Strayhorn

Our goal in adapting the script is to pay homage to the original film, retaining its flavor, dialogue and humor updated with a taste of the ‘burgh. Staging the event as a radio show for a live audience seems appropriate in the town where commercial radio originated. We hope you enjoy the experience virtually or in person.  Please contact us with questions. See the following for information on scheduling and tickets. — CDL

‘The Thin Man’ Comes to Pittsburgh
Carnegie Library of Homestead Music Hall
Saturday December 15th 7:30 PM, Sunday December 16th 2:00 PM
Tickets $10 credit card online at Artful.ly or cash at the door

You will also find information at ALCStudies Current and Upcoming Events.

We are grateful to the following for their support :

The World of Tomorrow, Yesterday & Today

Based on some of the sceptical posts here, you may think we are closet Luddites at Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies. However, if we don’t always embrace the latest technology, many of us use it. For instance I finally upgraded my Jitterbug wannabe to a new Android phone.

Out With the Old

This has not been without cost; not only in spending money for the upgrade, but learning to navigate a new device and interface. In the past two weeks, I’ve figured out how to download e-mail, sync with my online calendar and downloaded an app to track tasks; all coordinated with my laptop running Ubuntu Linux.

As my wife will attest, I’m more of a closet geek than a Luddite. I’ve built several desktop pcs and assembled my own touring bike from parts. In my consulting work, I’ve figured out what makes shiny new computing toys tick and how people can use them to accomplish tasks. Even still (or because of this), I have to make an effort not to get distracted from my own tasks — assuming I remember what they are – by the vast plethora of virtual possibilities. It’s easy to get sucked down one rabbit hole of technological extensions of our psyche and will and emerge somewhere entirely different in cyberspace, if at all. There be dragons.

I am a fan of the mindful use of technology. I resist having it preoccupy my

Separated at Birth?

existence. Thoreau warned. “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Still, I am seduced like most of us by the siren song that technology can lead to a better world. This is not a new tune, and one not the sole domain of the present.

I recently made a presentation on technology in literature and popular culture. This was to a group ranging in age from their seventies to their nineties. Many of them used e-mail to stay in touch with families and friends. One woman had a Facebook page. Another maintained a web site for her church. A professional in his eighties I know has no use for computers, but downloads books like The Three Musketeers on his Kindle to read in his native French.

During my presentation, I talked about the 1939 World’s Fair, which took place in New York during the Depression on the eve of World War II. Ironically, the theme was ‘Building the World of Tomorrow’1. On a whim, I asked if anyone had a relative or parent who had attended Several people raised their hands.

One attentive woman said ‘I was there.”

“How old were you, if you don’t mind sharing.” I asked.

She smiled. “I was fifteen. We visited the GM exhibit and saw Futurama.”

I thought a minute. She had witnessed the first demonstration of television, florescent lighting, fax machines and streamlined design.

PA RR S1 Locomotive Demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair

Earlier when I listed the technology that emerged during World War I, a man with a heavily-accented voice stood up in back.

“You forgot one! My father fought in World War I on the side of the Germans. He said the British tanks scared the hell out of them.”

In a moment I had gone from talking about a subject to being with people who had lived it. This kind of interaction is gold. It’s why I enjoy giving live presentations.

Other members of the group mentioned Nicholas Tesla, who worked for Edison, followed by Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh.

One woman said, “It sounds like a small thing, but when Corningware came out [in the 1950s], it made cooking and fixing meals so much easier.”

So the future arrives accompanied not only by nebulous, overhyped concepts like the cloud or insanely great devices, but by simpler ways to get supper on the table. — CDL

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1See my friend and colleague Chris McCinnis’s Progress and the Great Productive Machine for an insightful look at the ’39 World’s Fair and the portrayal of industrialization and technology in America.
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