ALCStudies Journal

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Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

Old Soldiers And Young

With no apologies to General MacArthur, old soldiers do die. So do young ones. They are still doing so, whether or not we decide their cause is just.

20160529_165133I came across a marker for Jacob Blough in a cemetery near Johnstown PA  — before thunder and lightning made me leave before I ended up there too.

Blough fought in the American war for independence with the Pennsylvania militia. He lived until 1810. Seeing his gravestone made me ponder the following:

  • Did he see action? If so where?
  • How did he feel about fighting against his former countrymen on the British side; perhaps killing them and watching his own comrades die for the sake of freedom?
  • Did he ever question the cause of American independence? Or did he believe in it wholeheartedly and without doubt?
  • What kind of life did he have after his service? Did he find a job and family and happiness?

I also wondered what we would think of Blough if he fought for independence today. Would we consider him a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Or both? Could I fight and die for the cause beside him? Or would I reveal myself as a coward? Or a fanatic? Which is worse? — DA

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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).

Seeing, Perceiving, Possessing

What’s the difference between a drawing and a photograph in rendering experience? In On Photography  Susan Sontag writes about the photograph appropriating the object and becoming more real than the object itself.

I spent Labor Day camping in a nearby wilderness area. On a whim I took the sketch pad and pencils along with my Android phone. I usually leave the phone in the car, preferring my solitude without actual or virtual interruption.

I camped in a small field off an old logging road. As I set up camp, I found I brought the fly and body from two different tents, so I rigged up the fly by itself with the poles. When I went to start my stove, the pump leaked. (Thanks, MSR). So I built a small fire to cook the salmon I bought along and boil water for Ramen noodles. As I finished eating, a thunderstorm rolled in. I crawled under the open fly and put the tent netting over me to keep out the bugs. I fell asleep to the flash of lightning and rain pouring down.

Next morning I woke to mist on the field but no rain. I found some fairly dry standing dead-wood under the trees. With the help of a little stove fuel, I built another fire and made coffee and breakfast. As sun burned the mist off and dried the grass, I folded my disparate tent parts. Rusted fencing surrounded the trunks of several trees in the field. One gnarled specimen with leaves like a cherry had small iridescent red berries on the branches. I grabbed my pad and made a sketch of it, then took a photo with my phone.

chokecherrieswpid-20130903_110740.jpg

I looked this up in Thoreau’s Wild Fruits . The closest I came was chokecherry, but I’m not sure that’s accurate from my previous experience.

I spent about least twenty minutes making a sketch and adding some color, before getting impatient. I’m an amateur artist, and a photograph takes just a few seconds. If what you are looking for is an exact representation or facsimile of what is seen, a drawing (at least mine) will always come up short.

On my return, I walked along a rock face beside the trail with a tree growing from it. I stopped to make a sketch, then took several photos.

cliffsidetreeswpid-20130903_121940.jpg

The static image is snatched from the ebb and flow of life.  A person or object comes into view; we point and shoot. The next day or years later (examined perhaps by strangers), the photograph is isolated from context and experience, dependent on memory or meaning imposed by the viewer. Digital photography and other forms of replication seduce us into capturing and sharing experience indiscriminately, without even knowing its significance. Drawing (or painting or sculpture or music) requires an artist attending mindfully and working within the limits of his or her skill and perception in conveying a representation of light and color, structure and space, tonality and rhythm.

Film captures both sound and motion. Artfully arranged, these render experience that reflects (or projects) what we desire to see as much as what exists. Encountered immanently (up close and personal) with all its flaws and vicissitudes (bugs, smoke, missing tent parts and failed fuel pumps), the real often proves inferior to the image. Ask anyone who has seen a Disney nature film or met a movie star or celebrity in person. Our own expectations and others’ of how life works are set more and more by the artificial (and wholly unrealistic) criteria set by others’ imagination.

Technically, you are not supposed to alter or leave anything behind in the wilderness where I camped. Someone built a couple of rock towers (cairns) in the middle of the stream. I puzzled a bit about how to suggest water flowing in drawing these. I finally added a couple of curved lines to suggest ripples. Does it work? I’m sure a practiced artist wouldn’t think twice about this.

streamrocks wpid-20130903_132322.jpg

Behind me in the image was a good-sized fire circle. I use existing ones myself sometimes when camping. I don’t really mind them unless someone cluelessly (or deliberately) leaves glass, cans bottles and other items behind.

The Pennsylvania Conservation Corps built a number of wooden bridges on the trails in the 1990s. The bridges bounce a little and creak when you walk on them. They smell like old wood and creosote. Your footsteps sound hollow when you walk across. At high water you can hardly hear because of the rushing of the stream beneath.

footbridge

wpid-20130903_145157.jpg

You don’t get any of this from a photo, drawing or Youtube. You have to go out and experience it for yourself. In our zeal to share experience virtually and instantly with others, are we losing the ability to live life ourselves? – CDL

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