Grief Comes In Many Forms

The stages, popularly known by the acronym DABDA, include:

Denial – The first reaction is denial. In this stage the party believes that its preferred presidential candidate has no shortcomings and can’t possibly have lost the election.

Anger – When the party recognizes that denial cannot continue, it becomes frustrated, especially at rival coalitions. Certain psychological responses of a party undergoing this phase would be: “Was there election fraud? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to us? We’re more highly qualified and sophisticated!”; “Who is to blame? Was it sexism? Was it the white working class? The ‘alt-right’?”; “How could this happen? All the polls looked good!”.

Bargaining – The third stage involves the hope that the party can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended stretch of political power is made in exchange for a reformed policy focus. People still in office and thus facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise.

Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon, so what’s the point?”; “I miss my Obama, why go on?” During the fourth stage, the party despairs at the recognition of the limits of politics itself. In this state, it may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.

Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight a Trump administration; I may as well prepare for it.” In this last stage, the party embraces the loss of the presidency, of Congress, or some other tragic event. People out of power may precede the new administration in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the party, and a stable condition of emotions.


[Wikipedia, modified]

Can You Hear Me Major Tom? Ctd.

I find myself really rather annoyed by the, I suppose inevitable, emergence of moralistic mentions of gayness in connection with David Bowie, which so far have taken three forms. First, of course the Westboro Baptists have to weigh in. I wouldn’t even take note of this were it not for Bowie’s lifelong preoccupation with Christianity, and spiritual seeking in general. When I learned that they were hoping to find something to picket in connection with him, I tweeted to them a link to a Youtube of Bowie’s heart-felt Christian hymn “Word on a Wing” in the futile hope that they might enjoy experiencing what the Christian sentiment of humility feels like for once. Though the Westboro Baptists’ plan to picket the funeral is mooted by the fact of a private ceremony, their attitude has found eloquent expression in Father Rutler’s ignorant, rambling, and pretentious essay at the conservative Catholic webzine The Crisis, and was sharply satirized by an Onion cartoon. But almost as bad were the secular responses of claiming that his essential nature as a politically progressive gay icon was being suppressed, or, even more hilarious, that as a straight man, we need to struggle with the question of whether he should be condemned for “cultural appropriation” or not. It may seem strange, but I don’t find these three different responses all that different from one another, and find it hard not to disdain them all. All three think that standing in moral judgment is the most important thing in the world, certainly more important than art, and that the most important thing we can do with sexuality is judge it from a moral perspective. I find myself torn between just sighing “oh for fuck’s sake” (which seems an almost literally apt curse) or urging these folks to relax and go get laid. Or read some Nietzsche and learn what it means to stand on their own two feet for a change. Bowie was the anti-essentialist par excellence, and he always did the most difficult thing, which was to refuse to be trapped in other people’s definitions and conceptual categories, to refuse to seek permission to be whoever he needed to be at any particular point in time. Yes, he explored his sexuality when he was young. He also explored cocaine, and a lot of other things. But he was fundamentally an artist, not a moralist. He was really every thing he said he was at each point in time that he said it; properly understood, there was no contradiction between his one time desire to flirt with the objectifying male gaze and champion our now dying outsider gay culture, at another time to say that it was a misunderstanding to define him as being about a desire for sex with men, and at yet another time to seek pleasure, comfort, and companionship (I believe the word here is “love”?) in the arms of, and at the side of, a black woman. (To see these trivial responses through my eyes, imagine if all three of them were instead about his alleged essential nature as a miscegenist.) When I see all these various folks with their self-righteous obsessions trying to tackle and limit him, I can’t help but think of Jerzy Kosinski’s idea of the “painted bird” that the other birds in all innocence try to peck to death. Bowie had the courage to be himself at all times, and the adventurousness to keep becoming new things, and a part of that was the ability to regard whatever he was interested in doing and being at any given time as far more important than what other people thought. As Berkeley Breathed’s Steve Dallas, hilariously dolled up as Ziggy Stardust, said this morning: deal with it twinkle toes.

Can You Hear Me Major Tom?

12507256_10208601067605657_643250472282739489_nI haven’t slept. I want to try to write up some sort of account that can explain why some people are reacting this way to the people who are not reacting this way. I will say that there is this line that comes to mind, from Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X (paraphrasing): “he was our shining prince.” It was not primarily about liking the music and the other things he did, though of course we were fanatics for them. He was one of the great personalities “fit to stand the gaze of millions” (as Stanley Cavell once said of Cary Grant). But rather than being a man who “carries the holiday in his eye,” Bowie’s magnetism was born of a confidence that braved a broken landscape within, a confidence that anything, no matter how dreadful or undermining, could be transformed into something meaningful and pleasurable, because this particular center of consciousness in the world thought itself supremely worthy of existing, regardless of what it was conscious of. That confidence underlay a tremendous artistic fertility and ambition, a tremendous restlessness, the central achievement of which was to take Modernism in the arts and make it popular, expressive, and accessible, thus giving the lie to the thesis that Modernism has to be elitist or fraudulent. For many of us, Bowie’s restlessness was educational, and we learned about all sorts of developments in art and music and literature just because he had become enormously excited by them and mentioned them, whether it was ambient music, or German Expressionism, or William S. Burroughs, or something else. He is the only pop star to have two of his albums transformed into successful classical symphonies by one of our leading composers, and the only pop star who had a museum show retrospective, not about his paintings, but about his very existence. From the beginning he conveyed a sense of vulnerability and alienation that on some level we all possess just by virtue of being human, and transformed it into a sense of dignity and importance deriving from our awareness of that very vulnerability. For someone who seldom acted, he had a handful of the most iconic moments of our time in cinema, whether it was as the stranded extraterrestrial who quietly explains that he misses his children, the army major who triumphs over the madness of war and its ethos with a kiss, or the weary Roman governor condemning “just another Jewish politician” to die on a cross. Though the press always characterized him as endlessly mutable, appropriative, and false, he always seemed to me to be essentially the same, always hiding in plain sight, always himself… and his existence seemed a kind of continual triumph over an underlying and imperishable sadness that is perhaps the only truly rational response to a world such as this. There will never be another like him.

David Bowie, 1947-2016

Flight From Byzantium

Civilizations move along meridians; nomads (including our modern warriors, since war is an echo of the nomadic instinct) along latitudes. This seems to be yet another version of the cross Constantine saw. Both movements possess a natural (vegetable or animal) logic, considering which one easily finds oneself in the position of not being able to reproach anyone for anything. In the state known as melancholy—or more exactly, fatalism. It can be blamed on age, or on the influence of the East, or, with an effort of the imagination, on Christian humility. The advantages of this condition are obvious, since they are selfish ones. For it is, like all forms of humility, always achieved at the expense of the mute helplessness of the victims of history, past, present and future; it is an echo of the helplessness of millions. And if you are not at an age when you can draw a sword from a scabbard or clamber up to a platform to roar to a sea of heads about your detestation of the past, the present, and what is to come; if there is no such platform or the sea has dried up, there still remain the face and the lips, which can accommodate your slight—provoked by the vista opening to both your inner and your naked eye—smile of contempt. — Joseph Brodsky


Kevin K

In the New York Times this morning, I read an op-ed in which a woman, Wendy Button, who is prone to depression, says, “Please take away my Second Amendment right.” I am very reluctant to speak to this question because of the nature of my personal experience with it, and my small readership is unlikely to make much of a difference pitted against the overwhelming media power of the New York Times. But I feel that a commitment to the common good demands it.

Yesterday, I noticed that an old friend of mine (his name, like mine, is Kevin) hadn’t been posting on Facebook lately. Since I had been playing with my filtering and privacy settings off and on lately, primarily to avoid the incessant links to commentary on Newtown, the Second Amendment and gun control, I thought perhaps I had inadvertently hidden all his posts. So I went to his wall to see if there were posts that didn’t appear on mine, and instead I saw posts from his family that included the rhetorical “why,” descriptions of being sad and the like. It took me about two seconds, like the cliche scene in a movie where the character drives to somewhere only to see police cars already there: instantly you know. Like a punch in the gut I realized two things: my friend of twenty-seven years was dead, and that he had shot himself with his handgun. I honestly hadn’t given a single thought to our “national conversation” since, until I saw Ms. Button’s piece this morning.

The story of our friendship in brief is this. When I graduated from college in 1985, I moved to San Francisco and started working in the title insurance business, initially as a messenger. Eventually I was promoted to a customer service desk, and once I was indoors, I came to Kevin’s attention as someone perhaps too bright to be merely answering the phone; at one point during a lull I was seen at my desk reading Ogden’s Real Property out of sheer boredom. So he took me under his wing and started training me to be a title examiner, which involves searching public records, interpreting legal documents, and drafting title insurance policies. We quickly became friends, and in addition to mentoring me in the business he became one of those people you know who turns you on to obscure music and art. I would say that he was the original hipster except that he was completely unselfconscious and genuinely loved the things that he turned up and shared with me. He was the kind of guy that would save up his money to go on a road trip to hilariously bizarre tourist attractions like the Cabazon Dinosaurs (featured prominently in Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure). He was into the kind of 1960s pop music we now associate with Quentin Tarantino soundtracks. He revered Robyn Hitchcock, J. G. Ballard, early David Cronenberg films, and, unsurprisingly, Hunter S. Thompson. These things gave pleasure to a soul that obviously viewed the world through the lens of great intelligence, but also with a kind of quiet fear, sadness, and, I think, horror. Before we too quickly judge that such people are instances of pathology, we should turn our attention to the world itself and ask whether they are not peculiarly equipped to see aspects of it the rest of us fail to notice or avoid. I think of him as the only person I know who wouldn’t have been surprised by 9/11, because it was the kind of thing you’d expect from a world that increasingly resembled a J. G. Ballard novel.

After a few years I decided to go back to school in the Midwest, and we lost touch with each other for a long time. Our friendship was renewed in 2008 when my sixteen year old son committed suicide by hanging. Like shooting a distress flare into a darkened sky, I sent an email to literally every email address I knew, telling everyone that Tristan was gone. I received many kind responses, but Kevin and his wife were unique (among non-family members) in that they hit the road and drove all the way from Nevada City to Portland to be with us, and this after a long period of being out of touch. For the four years that followed, we were good friends again, and frequently interacted on Facebook.

Kevin owned a handgun. I had known this for awhile. I stupidly imagined that this was just something of a homage to Hunter S. Thompson’s lived, Dionysian madness. We talked about it a bit after Newtown: he was my only progressive friend who also insisted on his right to bear arms, and on the sophistry of many gun control arguments. Back in October, however, he had a close enough brush with nothingness to reach out to me, as if begging me to talk him down from the metaphorical ledge; I did the best I could, building on my own all-too-intimate understanding of the consequences of suicide for survivors that my son gave me. I stupidly forgot then that he owned a gun.

When my son died, it goes without saying that I made no attempt to ban belts. Nor did I think of his death as an expression of his autonomy; adolescence is the slow, often painful birthing of autonomy; the task of family and community is to guide a child towards it, not instantly to confer it. No part of me “respects” Tristan’s choice, and I tend to think of it as more akin to a terrible accident than anything else (there was no indication of depression, no warning whatsoever, and absolutely nothing that could’ve been done to prevent it). When he died, I faced a few days that were the darkest I have ever faced, and a part of that was asking myself whether I had anything to live for. I have tried many times to explain this to others (the experience subliminally colors almost everything written on this blog) but I will try again: I started to slip into a kind of self-pity long familiar to me, and sensed that it was a road downward, ultimately, to death. But now, instead of whatever fantasies had accompanied thoughts of my own death in the past, I instead had the image of my son’s body as a kind of testimony to the concrete reality of death: the radical destruction of the most precious thing, a living human being. I had an immediate understanding of the seemingly limitless agony suicides create in the survivors who love them. And for the first time, I realized that self-pity is the foreshadowing of that ultimate assault on all that is good, on life and joy. It was a rough epiphany: self-pity is an agent of death, and death is the ultimate enemy. And it is up to us to choose sides in that war: are you on the side of all that is good, or of the nothingness that surrounds, challenges and consumes it? I made my choice. This was in some ways not an easy choice to make, not because of a desire to die, but, ironically, because of a desire to keep Tristan alive in memory. This common human desire is itself ambiguous. If we feel no impulse to remember the dead, if we make no effort to preserve that memory, it shows that we ultimately do not care that they died, that we do not love their aliveness itself to want to perpetuate it in some fashion. But by the same token, if the yearning for the dead blends insensibly into self-pity, we end up turning our backs on the present and future, on the living, and so animate and perpetuate our pain that we become absolutely committed to remembrance of the dead to the exclusion of all else. This is ultimately to prefer a shadow to life, and to be pulled, horribly, to the dark side. In the end, the only consummation possible for that is to join them, and become memory oneself. That is the paradox of grief.

Had I been less prone to depression myself, I might not have seen with such clarity how dangerous all this was. But this is precisely the thing: I know how dangerous depression is. And that is why I choose not to own a gun. I do not ask that someone take away my autonomy; I don’t need to. And thus I protect my life every day, because that is my choice.

In retrospect, I know that Kevin kept a gun by his side for precisely the opposite reason. He wanted to make sure, when the time came, that the means of his awful deliverance would be available to him. That too was a decision he made, day after day, in moments bright and dark. As a society, we might have made it impossible for him to shoot himself, in which case, I imagine he would’ve hung himself as my son had. I have learned from these experiences and others that there is nothing in this world more powerful than a will committed to its course.

Ms. Button wants her rights taken away from her. This is, of course, absurd. No right is ever absolute, as the proverbial cry of fire in a crowded theater illustrates, nor would reflection on that kind of scenario induce a writer to beg that we take her freedom of expression away from her. Rather, we understand that rights involve and are always subject to reasonable regulation. The Supreme Court itself has said as much about the Second Amendment. This involves certain obvious implications: if a convicted murderer on death row attempted to purchase a handgun online for his personal use, we do not tie ourselves in knots wondering if denying them this in some way obliterates the right more generally. But while there are reasonable regulations that all reasonable people can agree on, what is reasonable is often something that reasonable people can differ on. The life of the law is all about what restrictions harmless people should be burdened by in order to protect them from the harmful few.

Was it too easy for Kevin to buy his gun? I don’t know, and neither do you. I have no idea what hurdles he had to jump to satisfy the state of California that it was safe for him to own a gun, and I have no idea whether more burdensome restrictions for everyone could have saved his life. I know that if he had wanted to die he probably would’ve found a way, but perhaps more thorough background checks for mental illness, longer waiting periods, etc. would have slowed him down some. If that had been enough to save his life, it would have been essentially random and meaningless, just as my son’s death without access to a handgun was essentially random and meaningless. But I do know that Kevin’s decision to buy and keep a gun was not an impulsive one, because it was a decision he renewed by inaction every single day, from the day he bought it to the day he used it for the last time. Regard his last moments as the product of “illness” if you like, but to regard his entire life as nothing but an illness is to regard him as less than fully human. That he made a choice, I understand all too well, for I have made, and every goddamn day continue to make, the contrary choice. Words cannot express how deeply, profoundly wrong, evil even, I regard the choice that he made. But, as we used to say, about belief and its expression, I would defend to the death his right to make it.