Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Goodbye Six Feet Under

I canceled cable TV almost two years ago and hardly miss it. In fact, I think I’m much better off for having done it. For not only have I saved thousands of dollars in fees, but I’ve also watched great series I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise, because I would have been aimlessly frittering away my TV-watching time on the talking headless and other inferior programming instead of enjoying on demand via Amazon Prime, Netflix streaming, and Hulu some of the finest programs ever to adorn the small screen.

Over these past two years, in addition to watching great series that haven’t ended such as The Good Wife and Justified and reveling in several seasons of series that have such as Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy, I’ve also watched all of Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Friday Night Lights, Rome, Dexter, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and, just last night, I finished watching Six Feet Under.

Several years ago, a former friend of mine drunkenly raved about how great Six Feet Under is. He said it was a fantastically well-written, well-acted, and thought-provoking look at life and death and his favorite series ever by far. We watched the first episode together, although I think he passed out about halfway into it. Well, to be frank, I wasn’t quite as enamored with it then and subsequently as he was, but I still think it’s one of the finest TV dramas I’ve ever seen.

I guess what I disliked the most about Six Feet Under was that I often struggled not to despise almost every major character on the show. Almost every one of them, including all of the Fisher clan, seemed so incredibly neurotic, narcissistic, and callous to the needs and hurts of others, except to the extent that they saw them in terms of their own needs and hurts, that I often wanted to reach into the screen and slap them silly. I mean there were times when I virtually hated Nathan, Ruth, and Claire and recoiled from David’s whiny effeminacy.

But when all was said and done, I still cared about all of them, because, as all great TV series do, they were masterfully enacted as full-bodied, complex characters who took tentative steps forward and despairing ones backward along their developmental paths encountering life’s endless and sometimes overwhelming challenges, and there was so much poignancy mixed with delightfully dark humor in their travails, not to mention so many psychological, philosophical, and religious themes to contemplate along the way, that how could I not love the show and already miss it now that I’m caught in the melancholy wake of its majestic final episode? (You can see the final ten minutes of the finale below)

Well, now it’s on to what may well be the greatest show of them all--The Wire. What will I think of it and say about it after I’ve finished watching its finale? I should know in about three months.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Standing Up to North Korea

Was the North Korean government involved in the recent hacking attacks and threats against Sony Pictures? They say they weren’t. The U.S. government says they were. I’m not sure I consider either more credible than the other. But in this case, what difference does it make? Someone did it, and Sony Pictures indefinitely cancelled distribution of the ”The Interview” as a result. 

I can’t say that I blame Sony Pictures, but I hope they release the film later on. In the meantime, I applaud pugnacious Larry Flynt for pledging to release a pornographic parody of “The Interview” to thumb his nose at those responsible for the attacks. Moreover, President Obama has denounced the attacks and vowed to respond to them in a timely and appropriate fashion.

I have an idea of how he might do this. Why doesn’t the U.S. government pay Sony Pictures for the rights to the film and let one or more major networks broadcast it to the whole country for free? It could justify this as national defense against external intimidation and censorship, and many more people might end up seeing the film than ever would otherwise. I’d be one of them. The film looks like the kind of cinematic garbage I’d never see without good reason. But now I have the best of reasons.

Bring it on!  

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Meditation or Philosophy?

"The gate to spiritual practice begins with the visceral insight that everything is going to vanish, including me." ~ Lewis Richmond, Soto Zen Priest

I just finished reading a Tricycle magazine interview with Lewis Richmond about using spiritual practice to make the most, or, depending on how you look at it, the least of aging. Lewis contends that the older we get, the more we tend to experience physical deterioration and psychological awareness of our impermanence that opens a door to serious spiritual practice that may have been closed earlier in life, and that while meditation and other spiritual practices don't stop us from aging, thinking about our mortality, and dying, they can attune us more deeply to our moment-to-moment experience so that we see and accept it for what it is without wishing it were something else. He goes on to say that meditation and other spiritual practices won't necessarily make life wonderful, but they can still "make a big difference" in our life. In this way, aging can be welcomed as an opportunity for positive change instead of perceived and dreaded as a curse.

Two things came primarily to mind as I read this. First of all, I wonder if I wasn't right when I wrote years ago that spiritual practice may be vastly overrated in terms of the benefits it can deliver to the practitioner and to those in his or her orbit.

Second, I wondered if there aren't psychologically or philosophically oriented practices that might generate more fulfilling bang for the buck than would sitting countless hours on a mediation cushion. Of course, one could do both, and this multifaceted approach to personal development is, indeed, part of what has been variously called "integral transformative practice" and "integral life practice." But might one be better off spending the time one would have spent meditating reading about and practicing CBT or stoicism instead? Or would meditation make CBT and/or stoicism work better and vice versa?

My inclination is to think that, at my age and given my temperament, my time would be better spent psychologizing and philosophizing my way to wherever it is I want to go than trying to mediate myself there. But what do I really know of such things, and what can I realistically hope to accomplish with any approach?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mother's Day Musings

Yesterday was Mother's Day, and my Facebook news feed abounded with glowing tributes by my "friends" to their mothers, many of whom have passed on to the Great Beyond.

I too am grateful to my mom, who, at 76, is not only still around but very active and vital. I'm grateful not so much for her giving me life, which has been a mixed blessing, albeit through no fault of her own, but for what she's gone through and done along the way to help me have as good a life as I possibly can under the circumstances.

You see, I wasn't a normal kid and I've never been a normal adult, and I know she must have worried about me all along and that she still worries, especially, about what will become of me if she dies before I do.

Judging from my Facebook news feed, many of my peers paid their warm respects yesterday to moms who are no longer around, but I'm guessing that most of those moms had fewer worries or, at least, less reason to worry about their adult children than mine has had about me.

But as grateful as I am to my mom for the sacrifices she's made for me and for the help she's provided at crucial times in my life, and as touched as I truly am by the tributes that others paid their moms yesterday, the thing that strikes me most poignantly about it all is a very famous line from a very famous play:

Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I mean that I saw all these people posting about their moms who are either dying or dead, and I wondered, more even than I usually do, what it's all for. Girls being born, growing up, having children, working exhaustively hard to support and raise them, their children having children, aging into decrepitude, dying, and being honored on Mother's Day. "A tale told by an idiot."

I don't feel depressed as I write this. I'm just wondering, more than usual, what these cosmic eyeblinks of a lifetime of struggle, pain, moments of pleasure, and, if we're very fortunate, a modest sense of happiness or fulfillment toward the end of it all is all about.

I guess almost everybody finds a purpose or creates one of their own. Some people find it in just getting through the day, day after day. Many find it in embracing the doctrines and in carrying out the practices of their religion. Others find it in having kids, raising families, and being "productive members" of their society. Others, like myself, who live at society's fringes but aspire to do more than just live day to day, find it in reading, writing, thinking, learning, and connecting with others and trying to be helpful and good in any way that we can. And some probably find it in all these ways.

But, in the end, it still seems like a pointless process or, at least, one empty of substance or significance. Is it, or am I missing something?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Talking With a Jehovah's Witness at my Door

Two Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door a few days ago. I usually dismiss them with a polite but firm "Thanks but no thanks" kind of response. But this time it was two women, and one of them was a personable and extremely cute, young Asian woman. So, I ended up talking with her through the screen door for almost fifteen minutes while an African-American woman stood behind her and smiled.

Once upon a time, when my grandmother was still alive and I was her caregiver as she slid steadily into helpless senility, two Jehovah's Witness ladies came to my door, and I let them in for a discussion. They talked to me and to my grandmother. It turned out that both were registered nurses, and they ended up helping me tremendously in attending to my grandmother's growing needs until the end of her life. I will always be extremely grateful to them for that. I also agreed to embark upon a course of Bible study and discussion with two male Witnesses that continued over several weeks.

Of course, I had no intention of converting from profound non-belief in any kind of "personal" God to their religion, but I've always enjoyed talking about religion, and I was intellectually curious to learn more about their unconventional beliefs. I've since forgotten most of what I learned, but I remember coming away from the experience with those men and the two nurses feeling mystified over how these seemingly intelligent and thoughtful people could embrace such nonsense, but also feeling impressed that they all seemed to live their faith in devoted ways that most so-called religious people I've observed didn't. I had to hand it to them that they appeared to practice what they preached and that what they preached was, if bordering on insane in some of its elements, at least relatively harmless and even solidly beneficial to the people, such as my grandmother, whom these Witnesses helped in the community.

I told the Asian woman about the Witnesses I had observed, and she thanked me for the compliment to her faith. But I also told her I'd be extremely unlikely to ever believe what she believes. Yet, she still asked if it would be okay to leave some literature with me and, perhaps, for her to stop back by and discuss it with me sometime. If she had not been so pretty and friendly, I would have politely said no. But she was, and I said okay.

I've only read a couple of paragraphs from one of the two small pamphlets she gave me. I guess I better get to work.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Police Murder in the Albuquerque Desert

I'm not as keen on second guessing police shootings of civilians as some, but I can't see ANY justification for this tragic police shooting of a homeless man camping illegally in the desert outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. What imminent threat to these officers' lives did this poor guy pose? Hell, he was even turning away rather than toward them when they shot him several times! It seems to me that the shooter(s) may deserve to be prosecuted rather than excused for murdering this man! They certainly should be investigated by more than a rubber-stamping board from the same agency as the officers who unleashed their ballistic barrage, and, as of this writing, there are encouraging signs that they may be.

And what's with the bean-bag shots and sicking the dog on the guy after he'd already been shot by assault rifle(s) five or six times and was lying immobile or even unconscious in his own blood? Even if he was still holding a knife, did they think he was going to jump up like Rambo, take a miraculous flying leap at them, and gut them like fish through their body armor before they could squeeze off any more rounds? 

Police officers need to be trained to handle the mentally ill and homeless without instantly and reflexively escalating to the overwhelming lethality of soldiers on the battlefield, and when they kill without good cause, they need to be brought to task for it. Yes, police officers are human, and human beings make mistakes under duress. But James Boyd was a human being too, and he too was under duress with heavily armed police barking orders at him, a big police dog menacing him, and a flash bang grenade exploding near him, all of which undoubtedly exacerbated his apparent mental illness that impeded his cooperation with the police officers' commands.

He didn't deserve to die the way he did, the police who killed him don't deserve a free pass, and police officers need to stop invariably acting like Navy SEALs on a search and destroy mission.

Monday, March 24, 2014

They Say It's My Birthday

My calendar says it's my birthday, and the Beatles tell me I'm "gonna have a good time," so I might as well oblige. After all, why not? I can't have too many more birthdays in my future, if any. It seems like every year, someone I knew in grade school or high school passes. One of my best friends from those days died years ago. I even wrote a blogpost about it.

But what kind of "good time" do I want to have? Do I want to spend the day sating myself with hedonistic pleasure by eating, drinking, and being "merry"? Well, I couldn't do that even if I wanted to. I have driving and chores to do, including getting a new passport photo taken for an upcoming trip to Thailand, and bowling league tonight. Besides, hedonism seems overrated to me. I'm more into happiness, which can be almost the antithesis of hedonistic indulgence.

Yes, I know there are philosophers and therapists who say happiness is overrated too, and that the more we pursue it, the faster it recedes from us. But my notion of happiness borrows from Aristotle's "Happiness is an activity of the soul in accord with perfect virtue."

In other words, happiness is doing like they sing in the old U.S. Army commercial: "Be all that you can be," or, at least, working diligently to do this. It's living a life of integrity in fulfillment of one's highest principles and in patient but steadfast pursuit of one's grandest goals. And, to my way of thinking, it's mindfully doing all of this with the love to which Augustine referred when he wrote, "Love and do what you will" and Mother Teresa spoke of when she said, "In this life, we cannot do great things; we can only do small things with great love."

Some people say love is overrated. I say it's not rated highly enough by enough people. Too many make excuses for not loving their fellow humans and animal and plant brethren. I don't make excuses. I just have trouble loving people. I always have. But here, early into my seventh decade of life, I want to love more and to find ways to do it. One way to do it, it seems to me, is to act in a loving way.

Psychologists tell us that if we can't feel the way we want to act, then we can act the way we want to feel and our emotions will tend to follow suit. I believe this. When I smile, I feel happier. When I carry myself with confidence, I feel more confident. When I walk and talk and comport myself in a more calmly deliberate manner, I feel more mindfully contemplative. So, I want to devote today to doing all of those things. To acting loving, confident, and contemplative, and to wearing a persistent smile on my face.

Hey, there are worse ways to spend one's birthday. So, Happy Birthday to me, yeah!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Psychology and Free Will

I've been discussing free will online with a Christian university student who happens to be a psychology major. He believes in free will, and I not only don't believe in free will, but I also don't understand how a psychology major, of all people, could. This is what I wrote to him a few minutes ago:

If I'm not mistaken, you're a psychology major. Now what is psychology if not the scientific study of behavior and mentation, and how can there be a science of uncaused behavior and mentation? And if you say that the cause of human behavior and mentation, including human will, is the individual person, I say that it is unscientific to assume that the proverbial buck stops with the conscious choices of the individual without taking into account the biopsychosocial factors, many of them undoubtedly unconscious, that cause those conscious choices. In other words, it seems to me that modern psychology implies determinism. Thus, if you really believe in free will, it seems to me that you should render serious consideration to changing your major.