Thursday, August 7, 2014

Paul Walker, Tinctures and The Kindness of Denmark: A Ramble

It’s one of those post-call days where my mind is treacle. I “arrived at the blank page” eager to continue my latest effort on a novel after a shift that was reasonably kind to me and my registrar: I actually slept for eight hours and was bright-eyed at 8 am. But no fiction sprung from my fingers. Instead, I stared at the screen for a good fifteen minutes and took a cursory tour of my iTunes library, eventually fiddling about with the visualiser. Hardly creative stuff. Yet I still maintain that there is no such thing as writer’s “block”, at least not as an excuse. So I let myself ramble here. Freewriting —the parent of this post— is a much-neglected tool. I think of it as a little cardio workout before you hit the weights, and even if it gives you cramps you can at least take pride that you got up and went to the gym instead of think up a hundred excuses to avoid it. I’d already WAB-ed enough this morning —deworming the dog, rearranging the dairy products in the fridge, finding the right keystroke combination for em and en dashes: look!— and then it came to me, while I was taking a shower. Paul Walker.

Paul Walker (1973 - 2013)
The late actor, famed for his athletic good looks and meteoric rise to fame in The Fast and the Furious was rightly mourned by many young men who idolised his masculinity that was neither macho nor fake when he died, ironically, in a James Dean-esque fireball car-crash last year. At 40, Walker was still in his prime. He looked 28. He was (despite most of the screenplays where he had little leverage with to chew scenery except with his looks) a very good actor: look at his turn in Pleasantville as the conflicted 1950s jock who grapples with reality messing with the fairy-tale world he lives in. He had amazing hair. He was moreover a “guy’s guy”, evidently into all sorts of extreme sports, and, moreover, a nice guy, with no pomp or scandal or ego. He was a caring father. He was devoted to various charitable causes. Though I’m by no-means an action movie boffin, his death was a very poignant moment for me.

I kept thinking of E. E. Cummings’s line in his disturbing poem Buffalo Bill: “how do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mister Death?” It illustrated at once how simultaneously democratic and banal death really is: there is no distinction between celebrity or tyrant or poet or civil servant. It just comes. Cruelly, indifferently. And sometimes I gag, thinking how immune to feeling I need to make myself at work, certainly in the moment of doing my job when crises hit, to the catastrophes that befall even the most innocent and undeserving victims: like children. My mind is actively trying to suppress a few horrific cases I’ve seen recently. One of last night’s was a grim reminder of how much harm “traditional” medicine can inflict. Let’s just say the patient is at least going to lose a limb if they survive.

A propos, this is why I believe in democratic legislation of all substances that are passed off as medicine: I don’t care what tincture or plant or sugar pills they originate from. Strychnine, one of the most evil poisons in existence, is a wholesomely natural plant derivative, and it was actively peddled by snake-oil salesmen as a panacea years ago. Of course, a host of life-saving medicines have come to us from the plant kingdom too: atropine, morphine and aspirin from the deadly nightshade, poppy and willow tree respectively come to mind. Quinine, from cinchona bark, was the first true bulwark against malaria. And so on. 

The tragedy is that many people unwittingly shoot themselves in the foot seeking alternative cures. I am not defending Big Pharma at all… but if you think about it even for a moment, imagine those souls with a curable tumour who, frightened by scary tales about chemotherapy (which I fully agree is a horrible thing to go through), seek solace in this tincture or that extract. It happens. And, sorry, there is absolutely no evidence that homoeopathy works beyond the placebo effect. I’ll bury you in scientific papers to that effect if you want. Yet hundreds of “remedies” are sold as being able to assist with symptoms or illnesses without any checks or balances at all. 

If you think MMR causes autism, you are STUPID.
The worst damage is done by a small amount of vociferous, untrained individuals who seek to actively smear evidence-based medicine based on loony word-of-mouth theories. The recent spike in measles epidemics following the whole MMR vaccine / autism bullshit is frightening. I have little time for people who choose not to vaccinate their children because they refuse to investigate and discover that the evidence that vaccines cause autism is ZERO. You are putting your child’s (and other people’s) health, and even their very lives, at risk. I’m not mincing my words here: the nonsense perpetrated is one of the most spectacular fuck-ups in history. There are isolate, valid reasons not to vaccinate sometimes –allergy, for example- but the usual “logic” is as crazy as the stupid woman who decided to feed her cat a vegan… yes, you read that right, a vegan… diet and then wondered why the poor animal nearly died. Cats are obligate carnivores. Projecting ones anthropomorphic sensibilities onto a defenceless animal in this manner is inexcusable.

Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine against stupidity. Except, perhaps, education. 

But I’m doing myself a disservice by letting vitriol build up and detracting from the chief subject of this post: the surreal way that, at least on the surface, the death of an actor thousands of miles away affects me more than the hundreds of lives I’ve seen stricken by awful pathologies. But the feelings for them are there: here I have to trust Jung and Freud that the emotions are suppressed into the subconscious. And out they will come, even if we don’t realise it: an eczema flare-up here, a tic there, or a vivid nightmare in the bowels of the night. Memories are like ghosts: they haunt in dark corners and rattle chains when you least expect them. Furthermore, they’re drowning ghosts: they seek, beyond all else, to surface.

This is why debriefing after trauma of any kind is so important. Doctors are getting better at it. I would imagine that any trauma sets up a grief that needs to be processed and, well, mourned. We mourn the passing of loved ones with obvious understanding. Grief is not a mental disorder. We should learn to mourn our losses (as trivial as some may seem) appropriately, before they metastasise into tumours of depression and anxiety. We simply need to find our therapy. For me, writing is one such thing. And if I consider myself an “artist” in that I do seem to have a way with words sometimes, it’s just that I’ve realised that an artist is a craftsman who has learned to make his craft not just speak but sing. Anyone can be taught to sing. There is scientific proof for this, too.

Paul Walker’s bright, brief life is poignant because it is simple to process. Stalin notoriously said that a single death is a tragedy and that a million is a statistic. Mull that over, though, and a cold shiver will hopefully race across your spine. It is sadly true that so much evil spreads when good people do nothing. I do not think the vast majority of Germans were evil when the Third Reich unleashed its awful purging of six million innocent souls: but because no good was done evil proliferated. 
Some Danish-Jewish children who
were safely evacuated to Sweden

The happy inversion of this happened in Denmark. Although the Nazis invaded, and I quote my source direclty, the Danish Resitance Movement managed to evacuate 7 220 of Denmark’s 7800-odd Jews to neutral Sweden. Holy crap. That’s a success rate of 93 percent. Over 99%… yes, 99% of Denmark’s Jews survived the Holocaust. This is because the Danes stood up. And they did it with quiet resistance. There was a collective awareness that evil was happening, and simply with this awareness, good flourished. Calmly, the Danes gave the Führer the finger. 

Granted, those who resist evil often meet violent repression. But good needs to be obstinate when you realise that evil is an addiction to good in a way… it seeks to eat good and is never satisfied. That, at least, is how I parse the problem of evil.

If Paul Walker’s passing is shocking because such a Nice Guy was cruelly snuffed out, let’s look at someone who had his share of problems: A death that moved me deeply was that of Glee star Cory Monteith, who struggled with drug addiction for years. My wife and I were actually watching an episode of Glee when we picked up the tweet that he had died. The cast of this wonderful show had wormed their way into our hearts and they had become family. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that term, family. Much good has been done by entertainment… especially well-crafted entertainment… becoming a solace and a joy for people. If you took Star Wars away from me you would rip out parts of my soul, and a sense of magic would be gone from my life. When we pooh-pooh popular culture simply because it does not have the canon gravitas of a Van Gogh painting we throw a generation of babies out with the bath water. 

Cory Monteith (1982 - 2013)
Monteith’s death was almost certainly an accidental overdose. Addiction is a horrible disease, and though addicts are often bullishly destructive to themselves and others we need to understand this scourge with compassion. Tough love, but with compassion. Cory seemed a poster-boy for corn-fed American youthful optimism. Yet, amid the outpouring of grief from fans were some nasty comments that he deserved to die because he brought it on himself. What dark demons lurked underneath that boyish smile? Can we ever know? Cory was not a monster. He seemed a lovely young man. He was a conflicted young man, certainly, who probably never loved himself enough. And in a similar vein, I now realise that the schadenfreude so many displayed when Amy Winehouse died was a collective pissing on her great talent. We need to rather concentrate on the fact that art is not a disease. For many it is the lone good in which they can attempt to undo or subjugate their demons and foibles. We fall into the trap that great art has to somehow be tortured and water-boarded out of us, even if it may be a struggle to get it out in the first place. As I’ve said before, for every Hemingway I give you a Steinbeck or a Fauré or a Bach. Goethe himself said that the light is there and the colours surround us. 

And now, words are flowing out of me “like rain into a paper cup” — Across the Universe seems to have hijacked my brain. The words may be disordered and unruly, but I am grateful for the downpour. And, surprise, there has been no headache, no angst or self-loathing, go-figure.

I may not have added any understanding to any of the deaths I’ve mentioned above (I haven’t, Mr Freud, alluded to any of the personal losses in my life, tellingly.) But, if anything, I feel human again, after a night where a whole team of us had to rely on black-humour to get us through the dark hours.

Even though I wrote about it I am not become death after all. No world has been destroyed.

So, thank you Paul. Thank you Cory. You entertained me, and millions of others. I only hope to entertain some in return.

Jai Guru Deva Om.

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