Sunday, April 3, 2016

"The Forest" Another Opportunity to Reach Into the Darkness and Begin a Dialogue Against the Scourge of Mental Illness

Even though there was a minor eruption of protest over the making and marketing of the film, “The Forest”, a horror story set in the Aokigahara, the suicide forest of Japan, I personally did not find the film to be a cheap marketing ploy to exploit the tragic existence of such a place.   Those who study suicide, and suicide prevention, are aware that such places exist.  The Golden Gate Bridge being a real world example right here in the United States. There are other places…many other places. There is a Wikipedia page on this topic.  List of Suicide Sites.  

Those seeking an end, for whatever reason, need only have access to Wikipedia.

The Aokigahara, a forest at the base of Mt Fuji, is sadly one of the most popular places for suicide and the location for this film. It is, by all accounts, a beautiful dense forest, but tragically, a real place where many souls tormented with mental illness have chosen to end their own life.  In my opinion the movie, does not cheapen the torment, or the reality of mental illness.  Rather the movie serves up for the viewer a psychological thriller that portrays mental illness as demons of the mind.  In fact one line from the movie, perhaps more haunting than any of the visions of the dead and tortured souls that will appear on screen (it is a horror story after all) goes, “The visions are not real, they are in your mind”.   And thus begins a women’s break with reality as she frantically searches for her twin sister who entered the forest, seemingly in a quest to end her own life.

Earlier this year I responded to an article on FaceBook calling for the boycott of this film due to the insensitivity of the subject matter.  Here is that article.

Since the release of the movie, there have been other articles written to express a similar concern. Here is another one:

My own daughter, in fact, wrote a FB post supporting the boycott, which I also read.  At that time I   felt a similar level of indignation over the possible insensitivity to such a topic being cheaply exploited for profit.  However, I did mention in my own FB  post that I would  have to view the film before actually deciding on how right these protesters are...or, as I’ve become accustomed to realizing in today’s society, that any subject (which means all subjects) will quickly become politically incorrect and off limits if they offend anyone in the slightest of ways.

Well, after watching the movie, I have to disagree with the protest.  Not strongly, as in these folks (including my daughter and her friends) are completely wrong on the subject, but rather, to suggest to them that there are many ways for a conversation about mental illness to occur.  In fact, the very fact that we are having a conversation about the movie means we were having a discussion about suicide and it’s prevention.  A discussion we simply would not be having if we were talking about the upcoming release of Johnny Depp’s new “Alice in Wonderland” flick.

No, I believe, “The Forest” has a place in the dialogue.  To some extent, the mystery of the forest is revealed in the end, damping it’s allure.  And  as we see in the end with a twist that even M. Night Shyamalan could envy, there really is nothing supernatural happening in the forest. Shades of the movie “The Village” which was terrifying on first view--don’t let them in--and intellectually engaging on all subsequent viewings.  Does “The Forest” rise to the level of Shyamalan’s art? Perhaps not.  But it is also not as cheap, in an exploitative way, as those who are lodging the protest are saying.  This movie deals with the subject of mental illness, its causes, and the response of humans trying to cope with it including  those considering suicide and those trying to prevent it.  It’s just told in a different way...a way that just might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Recently I posted a haunting song by the amazing def metal voice of David Draiman the lead singer of the band DISTURBED.  The song was a cover of the classic “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, but done in an entirely new way, that is far from the sound of the original.  Yet is is equally as haunting, and in some ways, perhaps, more haunting.  It’s very existence is now and entry point into the musical world of DISTURBED.  Draiman is a voice for depression and suicide in his own way, having had first hand experience with suicide as a teenager.  Yet his approach to suicide awareness is not for the squeamish and will not appeal to most.  But it is not most people he is trying to reach, rather, it is those who have an alternative viewpoint to life, those who are different, those who may already be living in darkness. Those in the dark, are not necessarily going to look for answers in the light.  Sometimes it’s so dark where they are living that the only chance we have is to meet them in their darkness, take their hand, and try to lead them to a better place.  It may never be light in that place, but it may prove to be a safer place than where they live or may be headed.  Fear of the dialogue, fear of the darkness of these places,  keeps many of us from going into darkness to help.

So, with that long introduction to the movie, I will now give you my quick recap of how I interpret “The Forest” as a way to start the dialogue, not snuff it out in protest over things that we do not understand.  There are spoilers in my narrative to follow.  So perhaps it’s time to go see the movie, and then return.  At that point you are entitled to say I’m full of shit, but certainly not before.

The movie begins in the light.  We have the first sister, fully successful and married, living an apparent comfortable life  in the United States.  We discover she has an identical  twin sister.  Not to diminish the acting in this movie, the role of both sisters is masterfully portrayed by Natalie Dormer, the English Actor with a rising fan base from such things, as the “Game of Thrones”.  Now, when the creepy comes is when we see pictures of these twin sisters as children.  The only thing creepier than a creepy old photograph of a child, intentionally made to make the child look creepy, is a creepy picture of identical twin creepy children.  All is not right...clearly Sara, the heroine, has lived the more idyllic life.  She has a supportive, but somewhat dickish husband, when it comes to the topic of her twin sister Jess.  It seems Sara is the sister that came out right, has a life, whereas Jess, is the black sheep, always troubled and getting into some kind of trouble from which Sara must rescue her. Because they are identical twins, they share the gift of a mental connection.  Not strong extra sensory perception, but simply the mild connection that allows them to sense when either one of them is in trouble or pain...Jess of course, is the one always in trouble.

When Sara has that feeling  of peril, with regard to Jess, she begins to look for her  only to discover that Jess has ventured to Japan and has entered the Aokigahara Forest.  And  of course Sara also discovers that the Aokigahara is the fabled suicide forest at the base of Mt Fuji. Believing, and feeling, that Jess is still alive, Sara goes to Japan to save her we come to understand, a third attempt at suicide.  For those committed to the cause of the prevention of suicide it is well known that the number #1  indicator of a successful suicide is the presence of a previous attempt.  These bits of truth indicate to me that the writers of “The Forest” researched their subject or at least had advisers on the subject participating. Sara’s dickish husband, however, would prefer that she not get involved once again.  Which of course, we don’t know at the time, is what drives Sara on.

When Sara arrives in Japan, she begins to learn about the lure and lore of the forest.  She takes the train and attempts to enter the forest on her own even though she is not equipped to do so and recognizes this fact based on a series of encounters with the creepy and in particular the visit to the basement of a store on the fringe of the forest where bodies of unknown individuals have been retrieved from the forest.  She is told, numerous times, to stay on the trail. Realizing that Jess is not among the recently departed, and sensing that she is still alive, she decides to seek out a guide who can take her “off the trail” and deeper into the darker, more unknown areas of the forest.

The forest guide who arrives to take Sara off the trail is Michi.  A volunteer who goes into the forest to bring out the bodies of the dead.  This seems like a creepy occupation because of our belief that all who enter the forest will commit suicide.  What we discover about Michi that he is more concerned with bringing out the living than those bodies of the successful.  He tells Sara that she should not enter the forest because she is sad, and that should she go, the visions she will see will be only in her mind.  As they journey in Michi, fears the worst, yet Sara’s insistence that Jess is still alive gives him hope as well.  When they come across a tent in the forest Michi tells Sara to stay while he approaches the occupant of the tent.  When he returns he tells Sara that if someone enters the forest and brings a tent, they have not fully decided to end their  life.  He returns from his visit with the occupant and we discover that Michi has provided suicide counselling to the individual and that he believes this particular visitor might be alright.

As they continue deeper in the darkness of the forest they discover another tent.  Sara immediately recognizes it as belonging to her sister, Jess.  It is clear, based on her feeling, and what Michi has stated about those who bring a tent to the forest,  that she has not decided fully to take her own life and that there is hope.  As night begins to fall Michi advises that they leave and resume the search in the morning.  Sara, feeling so close now, refuses to leave despite the warnings.  The man who has accompanied them, a major red herring in the story to add a bit more of the creepy, decides to stay with Sara.  Michi, who knows better, leaves and tells them he will return the following day.

Visions occur throughout the night as the sadness Michi indicated exists within Sara’s heart begins to emerge.  We discover that Sara and Jess were orphaned at an early age when their parents were killed in a car accident.  We are led to believe that Jess suffered the trauma of this loss far greater than Sara, and it is what, perhaps, has led to her life on the fringe, a life many people who suffer from clinical depression, are all too familiar with.  A tumultuous, far from idyllic,  life.  The life Jess, but not Sara, has led.  But, clearly there is sadness in Sara’s heart because she is visited by these demons.

Throughout the night, as Sara tries to make sense of the ghostly visitors and their frightening message she becomes paranoid.  She doesn’t know who to trust and turns on the man who stayed with her in the forest, believing he is not the altruistic savior out there to help her find her sister.  In fact, she becomes convinced, that he is the architect of Jess’s disappearance.  As she flees from her perceived tormentor she encounters the evidence of many of the suicides the forest has claimed.  When suicide victims enter the forest and want their bodies to be discovered, they sometimes weave  a trail of string or colored tape through the trees.  She finds an unused ball of string and beings to weave her own trail through the forest.  This evidence is masterfully visualized through cinematography, panning back from the forest, we see many of these trails of colored ribbon strung helter skelter through the dark forest.  As she continues to panic, she beings to run and eventually falls through the forest floor and into a cave where more scary visions of the past are revealed.

Michi, who has now arrived at the campsite the following day, only to find it empty, organizes a forest wide search for Sara.  As the search continues Sara becomes more and more frantic. She has a vision of maggots, feeding in a cut in the palm of her hand, crawling up the veins in her wrist. Wanting to kill these maggots she begins to stab at them with her knife.  The pain of this stabbing is felt by Jess, who turns out, is still alive somewhere in the forest just as Sara has known all along. They sense each other's presence for the first time and they begin running and calling for each other. As they search for one another, Jess is led out of the forest and into the light of the search party but Sara is led further into the darkness of the forest.

This is when the truth of the past is revealed to Sara.  As it turns out, the true nature of their parents death was not in the car accident as she had believed.  Rather, their parents death was a murder/suicide at the hands of their father, who had shot their mother and then killed himself.  When she realizes that this is a truth she has suppressed all along the sadness in her heart becomes overwhelming and the demons in her head are able to take full possession of her.  The end is inevitable.  Sara is fooled by the demons in her head to take her own life in the forest while Jess reaches the safety of the search party.  Jess feels the demons in Sara’s head fall silent and knows her sister is gone.

Were any of the demons in the forest real?  Thankfully, there was no supernatural fight with some demon or devil like entity at the climax as happens in many of the junk films in this genre. The presence of such a cheap finale would have signaled to me that the critics of this movie are correct, that this is a cheap exploitation and insensitive to  the real forest and the tragic place it has become. But rather, to choose to portray the demons in Sara’s head, as a disease of the mind, give this movie credibility speaking out against the scourge of mental illness.

Is this a movie that should get the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) seal of approval?  Perhaps not.  But as I said, those in the dark already  will seek out movies and messages contained in these genres.  The simple message that the demons are not real and can trick you into doing tragic things is blindingly simple.  If this movie begins the dialogue that leads to a single hand reaching into to a dark place in order to lead a single person who is suffering to safety, then I’m in favor of this message. From this perspective there is no reason to boycott this movie...

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Starbucks and the Christmas Bully on Veteran's Day

My favorite holiday is Christmas. I love everything about Christmas. I love the season, I love the commercialization, and I love it’s true meaning.  We need look no further than, “a Charlie Brown Christmas” to discover this truth.  When all is lost, and Charlie Brown is at his wits end being  ridiculed by the masses for having destroyed Christmas, the principal indictment being levied by Lucy Van Pelt, Charlie Brown exclaims, “Does anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?”. And then the most humble of the group, Linus, steps forth to recite from the Gospel of Luke.  He says, among other things, “...the angel said unto them, fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy...unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.’

Each year we start the Christmas season earlier and earlier. We grimace when we see the Christmas decorations show up early in stores and begin prying open our credit cards. We complain about it’s commercialization which is the major theme of the Charlie Brown Christmas. But somewhere, in our hearts, despite the onslaught of commercialization we know there is something magical about this holiday and that Christmas is ultimately about love.  Regardless of what we believe, and regardless of how we celebrate, we know we will be with family and friends experiencing life to the fullest. Yes there will be disasters and drama and depression, but so too there will be redemption.  We learn this from the Who’s down in Whoville and we experience it first hand on Christmas morning. But today, I don’t want to talk about the Grinch, who is the chief Christmas bastard we love to hate,  I want to talk more about about Lucy Van Pelt...I want to talk about bullying. A few years ago I wrote another blog about bullying at Christmas was entitled, “Rudolph’s Dad was a Total Shit”.  Perhaps you read it?  If not you can read it here.  

I didn’t expand to other Christmas bullies because the cartoon “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer” is so rich. But already this season, we have encountered an amazing form of bullying that has painted closed the hearts of many and speaks loudly to something that has gone terribly wrong in what should be a season of great love.  Something, we have truly missed from our upbringing, even if we haven’t learned the meaning of Christmas  we have taken from the crowd...the mob that is social media and the ridicule it can engender.  After Charlie Brown returns to the school stage with the Christmas Tree he has selected he is subjected to a mob...the tirade of ridicule that is launched directly at him defies the sensibilities of even the least politically insensitive among us.  If you don’t believe me go back and watch.  Fast forward to min 19:30 when Charlie Brown and Linus return with the Christmas Tree and are roasted alive.  

After Charlie Brown’s total defeat, Lucy exclaims, “You’ve been dumb before Charlie Brown, but this time you really did it”. It is then that Linus takes center stage and saves the day.  The passage is repeated twice in the cartoon thus I will repeat it twice.  “...the angel said unto them, fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy...unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.’

It’s 2015, exactly 50 years, since Charlie Brown entered the Christmas conversation. Now we have another example of bullying.  Another of the ignorant, claiming to be a Christian, using the platform of social media to tell us what’s wrong with Christmas and how the secular world is chipping away at it’s foundation. To tell Starbucks, in the words of Lucy, "You've been dumb before [Starbucks] but this time your really did it". As clever as Joshua Feuerstein thinks he may be he has done nothing more than stoke the flames of discontent in a society already full of discontent.  He has given us the green light to bully. He has given us the source material to say, if things are not the way they have always been, you should be ridiculed for lacking our collective Christian values. And worse, for eroding what it means to be a Christian just as sure as if the Devil himself had a hand in removing “Merry Christmas” from the Starbucks holiday cup. Here is his video.

Feurerstein is a bully.  He's inciting all of us to also be bullies. This is not how we should act, this is now how we should teach our kids to act.  Have you seen the latest headlines exclaiming that the most intolerant kids in our schools are the ones with Christian values? Evidence suggest there is some truth to these headlines...ask a teacher.  This is a trend that must be reversed.  Christian children should be absolutely the most tolerate, the most accepting, and the most forgiving of any child if they have Jesus in their hearts. Feurestein's video teaches the opposite.

So Starbucks has removed the mention of Christmas from their holiday coffee cup, even though the holiday cup remains red..  Since there is no mention of Christmas, they have removed Christ from Christmas.  Was Christ ever really on the coffee cup?  Since Donald Trump has also added his voice to this fray, perhaps we should double check last years cup and see if we can find Jesus?

I am not the first to be critical of Feurestein’s diatribe, apparently he was even called a bigot on National TV. I would not take it that far...but I will say he exhibits the characteristics of a bully and a hypocrite.  Those who side with Feuerstein  should first put Christ back in their own hearts before looking for Christ on the side of their coffee cups.

Look, I’m not a fan of Starbucks.  Regardless of how many awards for ethics the CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz (irony noted) may receive for the global goodness  of his company, selling coffee for $5 cup has never sat well with me. In many ways Starbucks has been the bully of the coffee-shop industry.  If the crowd wants to boycott Starbucks that’s the capitalist marketplace way of doing business.  I will not stand in their way. I might even curtail use of my Starbucks gift card for a few days in protest over their prices.  But I will not do so because it doesn’t say Merry Christmas on the red holiday cup...that’s not only ridiculous it’s borderline blasphemous.  Doesn’t worshiping a coffee cup smack of idolatry?  It’s bad enough that we worship the contents of the cup, the drug that “America Runs On”, to drag Dunkin Doughnuts into the Christmas fray.  What about those hole-less bastards?  Have they removed Christ from their orange and white cups of Joe as well?  Not likely.  Jesus cannot be on the side of the coffee cup, he must be in our hearts and in our minds.  We shouldn’t need a reminder in the form of a cup or in the form of coffee.  Alas, we are only human and reminders do serve a purpose.  Thus isn't the color red all we need?

I guess I can thank Feurestein for one thing, here it is only mid November and I’ve already completed my Christmas blog.  Thus I’ve already started to think about Christmas and the love Jesus has for me.  Think about the color red.  Yes Christian’s it clearly represents the blood of Christ. Starbucks has chosen to color their cup this Holiday season in the blood of Christ. That is our gift.  That is our reminder.

Last thing...since today is Veteran’s Day... there is another  red we should be reminded of when drink from a Starbucks cup.  That is the red of valor visible on our US Flag. “Greater love hath no man than this, then a man lay down his life, for a friend.” John 15:13  Thank a Vet today.  Better yet, go drink of cup of Joe with a Vet out of a red Starbucks coffee cup. I will not be offended.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Amazing Hypocrisy of a House Divided

I’ve written before about the hypocrisy of the fundamentalist.  I called it, “Radical Fundamentalism and the Evolution of the Rattlesnake”.  And earlier still, "Whale Wars Must Go".  However recently, I’ve been compelled to think more about the fundamentalist and why, despite many of their excuses, they remain,  the largest group of hypocrites in our society.  For this essay I will not examine the fundamentalist as terrorist as I did so before.  Rather, I will examine our homegrown fundamentalists on the left and on the right and ask why they do not realize they are hypocrites.  It is this blind spot that causes the divided house problem...or the inability to live together in civil society...which is something, thankfully, that is not a majority view. Andre Gide's quote above captures that blind spot succinctly enough. Nevertheless since I’ve heard this house divided problem come up again and again along with rumors of a coming civil war it must be addressed.  To the coming civil war I say hog wash. But not without placing the blame on the fundamentalist hypocrite with the blind spot. Thankfully our country is eons away from such a fate because most of us are not of this ilk.

The fundamentalist doesn’t acknowledge their hypocrisy for two reasons.  First, in their world view, they are correct.  Regardless of how they may fall, or fail, even if they recognize their hypocrisy,  their world view is still correct.  This is the hypocrisy when we see certain fundamentalist groups rally against gay marriage, animal research labs, and abortion clinics.  In their minds the affront to their principals is so grave, whereas what they know they are doing is wrong, bombing clinics, starting fires, or spreading a message of hate, they believe their transgressions will ultimately be judged as a lessor sin or they are protecting something sacred and will ultimately be proven right, and thus forgiven for their trespasses. They are in fact, lying with sincerity. So, they believe, they are not being hypocrites if they choose to commit the lesser of the two wrongs and do so with a clear conscious (this is not the case of the sociopath).  In the immortal words of George Costanza, "Remember Jerry, it's not a lie... if YOU believe it".  In the book, the Logic of Political Violence, a leftist manifesto by a confirmed eco-terrorist, the author seems to compel his followers to believe that change ultimately justifies the means used to achieve such change.  So they know they are hypocrites, they just don’t care about the double standard (this is dangerous because the author is a sociopath trying to influence others who actually have a conscious).

Not much we can do to attack the willful hypocrite other than to appeal to that side of them that has the ability to empathize provided they too are not sociopaths.  Beyond that, if we cannot evoke empathy, it is a lost cause and no matter how much we scream and yell about the double standard it will have no effect. This is why, in many churches, no matter how many times the church leader will admonish a congregation, that they without sin, may cast the first stone, anticipating no further stones, they are aggrieved to witness, stones, too numerous to count, still come sailing in from the pews.

As an aside, there has never been another public venue devised than the venue Facebook has become for public stone throwing. With the introduction of the “Dislike” button on FaceBook public stone throwing may have just taken a turn for the worse. Zuckerberg will have created an even more polarizing option. It seems to me, the better approach would have been to just change the “Like” button to an “Acknowledge” button. After all, that’s really what we want to do anyway...tell our friend we acknowledge we have seen what they have posted. If we agree, disagree, or just want to show sympathy, “I acknowledge you” is the right message to send. Feedback, positive or negative can always be provided in the commentary. We all just want to be’s the number of “Likes” that matter. We don’t really believe, everyone who clicked on “Like” actually “Liked” what we have posted, the fact that someone has passed away in the family, for instance, in most cases, is not a “Likable” event.

But I digress, let’s get back to the fundamentalist hypocrite and why, of all the hypocrites, they are the most dangerous.  Since everyone of us may have hypocritical tendencies why are those who are more radical in their stance, worse than those of us who believe in a cause, but don’t necessarily speak out as vehemently?

Why is it the fundamentalist hypocrisy that causes the divided house problem and not our own?  Independent of any political or religious leanings I give you the narcissist.  Simply put, a narcissist is someone in love with their own reflection.  It is too simple to say a narcissist is a selfish person as many a seemingly unselfish person can still be in love with their own reflection (someone willing to martyr themselves is a good example of this behavior - it is my opinion that Kim Davis meets this definition).  Nonetheless, narcissists exist.  Thankfully they are only about 10% of our population.  They are selfish, and evolutionarily and ironically speaking, are those most likely to preserve our species because they are bent on their own survival and would either kill, or be killed, rather than give up their way of life.  As they preserve themselves, so too, they will preserve the species.  This is the principal of the selfish gene, manifest in human behavior.  And if we ascribe to Richard Hawkins's world view, we all would be narcissistic.  It’s wonderful to know that we are not...and speaks volumes to that numbskull’s major mistake.  Other evolutionary forces are at play that permit cooperation and compromise as survival tactics.  We can argue the sources of altruism, but, we can’t argue the fact that altruism exists.  Biblically speaking, “Greater love hath no man than this, then a man lay down his life for a friend” and in Trekkie speak, “The needs of the many are greater than the needs of the few, or the one”.  Altruism lives on the left and the right.  Altruism exists in nature and thus could be considered a natural law.  That said, let’s not make a mistake and infer, communism or socialism for example would be in the best interest of the many.  Society has proven, at least heretofore, that capitalism is a superior economic system.  And capitalism combined with the some type of political system that approaches a democracy is a superior way to live freely. Although capitalism is the best economic system ever devised it is still not perfect. Capitalism still exploits everyone and everything and the winner can, and will, take all if left unchecked. Same with a democracy. In a pure capitalist society monopolies will be the norm. It has always been recognized that monopolies require some level of control because what emerges at the top is far more nefarious, and many times more so, than any evil, such as laziness, that will emerge at the bottom in a welfare state, for example.  Is, for instance, the weed dealer or prostitute on the corner, who happens to currently be incarcerated, more evil than the Bernie Madoff’s of the world?  (Notwithstanding the most likely scenario that the actual Madoff is a sociopath)

Absolute power corrupts, absolutely. Those at the bottom of the ladder have no power whatsoever. Most on the conservative side of the aisle believe that liberals are simply trying to liberate them from whatever they have scratched together, in their own lives, from hard work and have not benefited, in their own lives, from the same hard work. Of course they have…of course they have homes, and savings, and retirement accounts… But they try to do so with more of a balance toward those who have been less fortunate.  For everyone but the narcissist, there is a strong desire not to exploit the weak, those who have no voice, the natural environment, or other things, that if left in the open would be exploited for the narcissist to survive. To exploit anything or anyone at anytime is anathema to my sensibilities. Ironically, that means, I myself, am subject to erring on the side of being exploited. And, of course, that has happened many times. To be clear, I would rather be exploited than to be the exploiter. This isn’t a balancing act. It can’t be. If I live a life striving to be balanced on that front it means I must exploit a little, to keep or hedge back on that being exploited from myself, and that doesn’t work. There is no hedge, there can’t be…it’s all in. You can’t exploit, ever. But inevitably, it happens.  Shopping at Walmart, for instance, cannot be easily avoided,  thus we exploit indirectly.

The United States has always been a house divided.  Safe to say that most of our founding fathers, were not the hypocrites of which I speak and were able to live in a divided house.  That continues to be our great strength. From the very beginning we have been divided…but we unite as a Country for the common good. Our division and our diversity is our greatest strength. The liberties and the freedoms we protect are the envy of the world. To not recognize that this diversity is our strength and to believe that this diversity is something that could lead us into another civil war is a far more frightening to me than the erosion of the family, for instance. An extreme bifurcation of philosophies based on an unbending hypocritical narcissistic fundamentalist world view is the danger. It is not the speaking of one language that unites us. It is not attending one church that unites us. It is the desire to be united that unites us…period.  That desire compels us not to be offended by others customs and beliefs and at the same time to do our best not to offend others. To offend visitors in our home is something I would try not to do. They are guests. Contrary to what is believed to be the sin at Sodom and Gomorrah, the true sin was one of in-hospitality. We sin the same way, as a country, if we close our doors to the very same people that built this country…those looking for the freedoms and liberties of a united states. 

When those people come, as we and our parents did, and their parents did, they will come to unite with us. If that desire to unite disappears we cease to be The United States of America. We become something else…a nation of fundamentalists (both narcissistic and hypocritical) which with the headlines we have been receiving recently, is how most of the world sees us anyhow.  As a country,  we would do better to change that world image.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Fetal Tissue and the Taking of Cecil the Lion...No Common Ground On the Dark Side of the Moon

There has been some call out in the media, for example an OpEd piece by Charles Camosy in the LA Times linking the current outrage over the Planned Parenthood fetal tissue video and the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe, as common ground that the left and the right could perhaps come together on.  Camosy, who teaches bioethics at Fordham University sees a link between the two which almost completely evades me. The only link is the one he attributes to Pope Francis, and even then, although a valid concern for all of us, serves as a weak link as it pertains to these two subjects, and I seriously doubt Pope Francis had intended for Camosy to make the link as such. The linkages made by Republicans, such as the dimwitted Rush Limbaugh, and the not so dimwitted Marco Rubio (although a bit naive), are not being made by Democrats. Principally, I believe, because there is no link, as most are appalled by both sets of appalling human behavior we've seen played out in both of these cases. If that's the link than so be it.  But that's not what Camosy is saying.  He is saying the rights of the defenseless animal and the rights for the defenseless unborn are the link. That's rubbish and not the salient point of either issue.

In the case of the hunting and killing of Cecil the Lion, the crime is not so much the killing (or "taking" as the game hunters like to say) but the brazen purchase of the trophy hunt ($55,000) and abject disregard of personal responsibility of the wealthy American who seemingly unwittingly (the investigation will hopefully reveal any malfeasance)  bought himself into the equivalence of a staged hunt. He was an idiot, not because his chosen sport  is morally objectionable to animal rights advocates, as other lion's are hunted in Zimbabwe, as are other big game world wide, and certainly do not raise this type of clamor beyond the PETA circles, but because his money bought him his right to "take".  And it blew up in his face.  What he should take is responsibility.  Period.  This is not an argument on the left or the right.

The other issue is much more complex.  The moral crime here does not depend on the issue of abortion, but rather when does the buying and selling of fetal organs (fetal "tissue" being the language that seemingly conceals the truth in this particular case), commence.  If abortions are occurring to harvest organs as a principle goal Planned Parenthood, is not the target.  Rather, the deep ethical questions that revolve around all organ donations .  As always the source of the organs, and the question of the haves and the have nots, must be in the discussion.  If, those responsible parties at Planned Parenthood, are somehow engaged in an illicit organ trade in this manner, this is completely independent of the morality of the abortions themselves, and of course, morally reprehensible in any circle, left or right, if some black market trade is revealed.  I'll spell it out.  We are talking about the intentional ending of a life for the purpose of organ donation.  This is different from conducting science with discarded tissue (stem cell research or different category of science using discarded tissue).  And, if we truly are talking about a late term abortion, I can't see how any fetal organs would be viable for any type of transplant, short of an almost full term pregnancy being ended for such an end.  Otherwise, the abortion would be illegal in most recognizable circumstances. Certainly this too, is not argued between the majority on the left or on  the right.

The common ground of condemnation for reprehensible acts already exist in the majority of our population, linking two disparate topics in this manor serves no purpose beyond a publicity stunt, pronounced Rush Limbaugh. 

So what's left on these two issues is the radical nut jobs on the extremities of both sides.  There will never be common ground between them...other than the libertarian day dream that occasionally occurs when the far left and far right swing back together and touch each other.  I prefer the ground between the two, in the light of day, not this ground that occasionally swings back around and touches on the dark side of the moon. Upon thinking about this, that might in fact be exactly where these two highly disparate issues have come together and thus have arisen for the Camosy piece.  That's exactly the wrong way to think about these two things.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

OPM Gives Edward Snowden a Pass...

As much as I hate the villainous traitor to our country, Edward Snowden, as described in my blog June 2013 blog, “American Hero, Idiot, or Traitor”, I hate the data breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) even more.  It’s easy to hate a person, such as Snowden, but difficult to hate an institution.  Can you really just say we hate the head of OPM, Katherine Archuleta, fire her and call it good? Was it the head of OPM that violated the sacred trust with the entire corps of Government employees?  Yes, she should go.  She should resign.  But, that is a far cry from making it good. There is something else to blame and something so more insidious that the aftermath of this issue will resonate for the next 40 or 50 years.  Then entire government work force will have to essentially age out before the data obtained in the SF 86 of every government employee ages out of it’s usefulness to the foreign government that now unlawfully owns this information.  I can imagine the celebration that is now going on in said Country. Goodness can you imagine the hacker who brought that package home?  They are true National Heroes in their Country...Back here in the US,  perhaps, we would call that particular Dark Visitor, public enemy number one.  If we can track who did it, maybe we can pursue them directly, and individually, as we do all cyber criminals, but within their Country, they are heroes.  No doubt if I met that particular hacker or hackers I would have to shake their hand, as if just being defeated in a game of chess, and say, well done! At least they had to work for it.  The scumbag Edward Snowden, on the other hand, gave it away.

But I get ahead of my rant today…to fully understand the ramifications of this information you have to start at the beginning...for me that would be 1987, when I entered the USAF, when I was first finger printed, and when I first penned the details of my life onto a Government form, thus entering the collective of US Federal employees and surrendering any autonomy of life, perhaps confessing a life on the Lamb, if I would to later choose a life of crime, would be difficult.  I was in the system.  Big brother now had my facts...these days they also have plenty of mugshots and of course scans of my retina.  DNA is soon to follow.  Little did I know, back in 1987, I would also be surrendering these details to another Country.  I’ve lived a relatively tame life, so I’m not really saying my SF-86 is full of lurid details of a secretive life worthy of any blackmail, unless the addresses of places I’ve lived and the people I’ve known are sufficiently worthy of a Hollywood Blockbuster, but, there are things, like my mother’s maiden name, dates of birth, etc, that could be used by an industrious hacker, such as those of “We Are Anonymous” fame, to hack most of my web accounts.  This data, used in social engineering, is also how websites secure our logins with “Challenge Questions”.  The city of your first elementary school for example.  I can change all that though, as well as to begin using technology, such as 2-Step Verification, on all my email and other accounts.  Most financial institutions have already instituted some version of 2-Step verification already, so don’t get too wrapped around the axle.  But definitely change your passwords and your challenge questions if you are in doubt.  But this blog is not about enhancing your security moving’s about trust.  The trust we must have to put our data in the hands of a third party.  As we do every time we swipe a credit card at Target, every time we punch in the pin for our cash card at 7/11, and as it turns out, every time we give the Federal government our Personally Identifiable Information, or PII.  For years, as Federal employees we are trained on the correct handling of PII.  A social security number (SSN) being the most readily identifiable piece of PII.  Seems like only yesterday I had my SSN printed on the tops of my checks, for convenience, because when you wrote a check at the store, if it wasn’t already on the top of the check, you would hand them your drivers licence and they would hard scribe it on top of the check anyway.  The vast numbers of people writing their SSN’s on the top of their checks is what gave us safety.  We hid in the mass of numbers out there in the public.  Yes the bad guy, could pull a check from a drawer, and try to write a couple of bad checks with your info, but the probability of that happening to you personally, was one in many millions.

For several years now, it’s been clear to me, that Google, was perhaps a better place to hide.  Hide plain sight.  Hide among the trillions of bits of information surging through cyber space.  The USAF, of which I’m most familiar, instituted a different technique.  Consolidate all the information and secure it behind layers of security. Just like OPM, except without the layers of security. The key word here is consolidate.  Whenever you consolidate, you create a more valuable target.  If you want to hide, disperse.  It’s the opposite of trying to defend everywhere.  The immortal words of Frederick the Great, “He who defends everywhere defends nothing”,  is turned on it’s head.  An attacker is only interested in what’s behind the defense...if you defend nothing, nothing, perhaps is of interest. But as we learned in Pearl Harbor, if you pack everything in, it’s easy to wipe out.  Nobody is calling this data breach at OPM the cyber Pearl Harbor we’ve been long awaiting, but isn’t it?  Didn’t they just wipe out the usefulness of preserving the privacy of 18 million government employees.  We never believed, that a cyber Pearl Harbor, amounted to large dramatic explosions.  But we did think that a cyber Pearl Harbor would wipe out Wall Street for instance, in which “markets will crash crash, financial empires will crumble crumble”, stealing the best lines from the movie Hudson Hawk...that hasn’t happened exactly in one dramatic event, but hasn’t as Pearl Harbor of sorts just occurred?

To me it’s time for a change….but first we must return to Edward Snowden.  Snowden, as are all government employee who have security clearances, give up their privacy so they are trusted with national secrets.  We give up our privacy and are granted trust and a paycheck to have access to the Nation's secrets.  The Nation, thus is presented with our personal secrets which they should also protect.  And they do try...right?  We sit through PII training on an annual basis. But after OPM,  should we be protecting PII any longer?  It doesn’t make much sense for me to protect my PII much anymore...just like I was unafraid to put my SSN on the top of my check, maybe I should now put it on a billboard, as the folks at LifeLock would have me do.  Well, we've all been on the hook to protect PII, and we pussy foot around, not emailing SSN or making lists, with various people at different levels of comfort, and having to endure the annual refresher training...meanwhile, the entire organization responsible betrays the fundamental trust with us...they pull us through the keyhole while the basic rules don't apply to them...are there folks out there, government employees who have gotten in trouble, gotten fired perhaps, been made scapegoats for compromising PII? And all the while it's been a sham?  Government employees have been held to a higher standard with regard to protecting PII than our counterparts in the citizenry...they also take an oath upon employment...and feel...beyond doubt (or as I have) that if we are trusted to protect the government's secrets, the government is compelled to protect our beyond the breach of contract for which we could rightly end our employment, moving forward,  anyone who compromises anything, including security at this point, has a case that there is no longer a contract, the contract has been breached, and thus we are no longer bound to keep our Nation’s secrets, secret...since they don’t protect ours.  And with felons like Edward Snowden out long before he makes a similar argument.  No doubt Edward Snowden's SF-86 was in the stack that was breached...does he now have a legal case against the US?  As class action lawsuit, to which we are now all party, at least 18 million of us, including Edward Snowden.  Perhaps the remaining 300 million have a suite as well, because, isn’t the entirety of  the US now less secure if the security of every employee of the United States Government has been compromised.   What Edward Snowden did to us pales in comparison to the breach of contract with our Government and certainly, in my mind, gives him some breathing room.

As much as I think Edward Snowden is a traitor to our country, I no longer think we can  hunt him down, prosecute him, and if found guilty, execute him for his war crimes.  OPM may have just  handed him his pardon...his ticket to a long life...and he will be smugly rejoicing from his hovel deep inside Russia. Nevertheless, if  I were in the room with him, I would still beat the smug off his face with an American made baseball bat, carved out of northern White Ash, and leave him lying half dead and bleeding on his cheap linoleum tiled floor.  Then I would throw his SF-86, stapled in the corner, dog eared, and with his updated contact information, his address in Russia,  and signed in pen, on top of him, and tell him he's excused...

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Salinger, Caulfield, and Depression in Teenagers

Long before JD Salinger stormed the beaches of Normandy during WWII, engaged in the interrogation of prisoners, and subsequently checked himself into a mental health clinic in Nuremberg, one thing is clear, he had been kicked out of boarding school many years prior to the PTSD he is believed to have been afflicted with during his wartime experiences.  I would say it is certain that he had PTSD after the war. Most of us would too if we had been in the landing crafts at Normandy.   But most of us, perhaps, were not kicked out of boarding school.   It’s clear that Holden Caulfield was kicked out of school, several times.  I get it, if JD Salinger had PTSD, then Holden Caulfield must have PTSD...he’s attributing his symptoms to Holden, after the fact.  All true, except Salinger truly was kicked out of boarding school long before the war.  I believe Salinger was not attributing his post WWII symptoms to Holden, he was, in fact, attributing his prewar symptoms, the symptoms of depression and possibly bipolar disorder, which would, quicken the effects of anxiety and PTSD upon him when exposed to the trauma of war.

I just picked up the NY Times best selling biography on Salinger.  It’s a long book and it will take me awhile to get through it...if I decide I want to finish it...I probably will not.  As with everything Salinger, it’s an unauthorized biography.  It’s  based on the public record of interviews with the man, and interviews with friends of the man.  How reliable can it be?  The book is close to 600 pages long and there isn’t  a single mention of the word “depression” in the whole of JD Salinger’s life.  In fact, depression is a hard word to find in any detailed decomposition of either Salinger or writings about his works. 

After I read “The Catcher in the Rye” for the very first time, in the summer of 2013, I wrote the a book review and posted in on Amazon. I just finished reading the book cover to cover for a second time and I stand by my original assessment.  Holden Caulfield isn't crazy...he’s depressed.  Do you know how I know?  He says he’s depressed, sad, blue, or feels alone no less than 70 times in the scant 200 pages that comprise the novel.  Are we, as a society, over the last 60 years in complete denial about the existence of clinical depression?  This is a bitter pill that is difficult for me to swallow.  So I keep searching.    

Last year I uncovered a book within the Social Issues in Literature series.  This book called, “Depression in JD Salinger's, The Catcher in the Rye” was a beacon of hope for me that, whereas society didn't notice Holden’s condition, the mental health professionals in our society have.  Wrong again.  Of the many essays contained within this compilation of professional writings, the contributors seemed more preoccupied with things such as;  he (Holden) is searching for love, he is searching for a father, he is depressed by his own failings, he suffers from unresolved sexual conflict, he is unable to cope with an adult world, he is dealing with angst of adolescence, and his problems are because he is a communist.  No wonder JD Salinger dropped out of society.  Society was not ready to handle what he brilliantly captured within the psyche of his beloved character. Holden is a kid who, quite like Salinger himself, must be clinically depressed.  65 million readers  have missed this over the past 60 years. Now, in 2015, this is an unforgivable oversight.  We are talking about teenage depression and the subsequent risk of teenage suicide.

OK, back the the 600 page tome on Salinger's life.  There’s a chapter in his biography where Salinger visits a publisher and then went storming out of the office because, in his words, “They think Holden is crazy”.  Well, mental illness means many things to many people, but I can tell you for sure, depression, is not viewed by the depressed as crazy. They know they are viewed as crazy at times, but they don’t think they are.   For them depression is real, it is all encompassing, it is terrifying, but it is not crazy.  To call them crazy is to deepen their depression.  Holden Caulfield was not crazy.  He was depressed.  His depression scared him and contributed to his high level of anxiety and his further descent into despair.  And the entire situation leads to his suicidal ideations during the story, including his desire to disappear, and more importantly, to catch children as they unwittingly flirt with death alongside a cliff as they play in the rye grass.  Just in case there is continued doubt in what I am saying, the words reflecting anxiety appear no less than 40 times in Catcher. Further, terms like die and disappear, terms that should not be mistaken for suicidal references these days, appear over 20 times.

Society has missed the forest for the trees. And, as I mentioned in my book review, we have missed an opportunity to fully understand adolescent depression in order to have more meaningful conversations with our kids.  Not only is it our job to catch the symptoms of depression and the potential for suicide, so clearly delivered by Salinger, we must also acknowledge that there is even a darker side to individuals suffering from these mental illnesses.

The three most high profile acts of violence with a direct link to “The Catcher in the Rye” were, Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon.  John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan, and Robert Bardo, who shot and killed the actress, Samantha Smith.  It’s documented that they all struggled with depression.  Hmmm... that’s no surprise.  But do we honestly believe they fell under the charismatic spell of Holden Caulfied’s rebellious side?  Or is in more believable that they saw in Holden, their own tortured mind’s as they themselves struggled with same demons of depression?

The stigma of mental illness and depression continue to make this conversation difficult.  WIth regard to teenagers, without a doubt, students who suffer more with these illnesses are more likely to slip through the cracks.  Some may just disappear from the campus, some may tragically disappear from life. Some could reappear more violently.

Near the end of “The Catcher in the Rye” Salinger gives us a quote by Wilhelm Stekel a Freudian Psychoanalyst. The quote, which is given to Holden by one of his teachers, Mr. Antolini says “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one…” Most of society believes that the first part of that quote is the one that applies to Holden. In reality, in the context of where Holden and Salinger both cross paths in their psychology, Salinger is the one who want’s to live humbly for a cause, through Holden. Salinger is compelling all of us to become catchers in the rye and to save kids, like him, from the scourge of depression as he personally experienced it. In 1951, society wasn't ready for his message. I hope, in 2015, we finally can open our eyes to what he is saying.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Slim Jimmy

I got to work this morning and promptly proceeded to lock my keys in the car. What kills me is that I couldn’t find my car keys yesterday so I grabbed my spare set  knowing the other ones would turn up. Well this morning they did turn up. As I was locking the house on the way to work I threw my keys into my computer bag and immediately noticed the other set of keys was inside. I immediately thought, “Oh crap, Rule Number 1, never keep your primary and spare keys in the same place”. Well, lazy me, I reasoned no way today’s the day I do something stupid.

Well, guess what? Sure as Sunday I locked my computer bag in my car. It’s so hard to lock your keys in the car these days. Cars are a lot smarter than they used to be. You really have to work at it. And work at it I did. OK...what do you do when you’ve locked both sets of keys, your wallet, and your cell phone all in your car? I stood around for 30 minutes waiting for the security police to drive by and help me out. No such luck...they must be busy on a Monday morning. Well, as it turns out, I thought I locked my badges in the car as well, but I had them in my pocket. OK, at least I can go into work and sit at my computer and try to figure this all out. 

So in I go. I called the security police immediately. I asked them if they carry “Slim Jims” in their vehicles. Nope, came their reply, too much liability for us. I think he was lying. I’m pretty sure “Slim Jims” are standard issue, in case a cop finds a child or a dog locked in a hot car. But maybe not. Anyhow, the officer on the other end of the phone gave me the number for Al’s Towing. They would be able to open my car, but it would cost me $80 bucks. least I knew what the minimum damage would be. I wonder if those guys research how much it would cost to replace a driver’s side window? Aside from the time and the mess that the broken glass would make, at least the window on my car goes for about $84 bucks. That’s way too close to be a coincidence. I wasn’t ready to drop the coin yet. I figured, surely, someone at the office, one of the car enthusiasts I knew, must carry a “Slim Jim” in their tool kit. I called around. No such luck. One guy was like, yeah, I’ve been meaning to get one but I just haven’t. Then I did a search on Slim Jims, just to see what one actually costs. So starts my lesson for the day. 

If you haven’t seen the movie “Gone in 60 Seconds” starring Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie, I have to point out that a Slim Jim is not the beef jerky that comes as a snack meat stick wrapped in plastic...well, yes, those are Slim Jim’s too, but those are not the ones favored by car thieves. The ones car thieves used are long slender pieces of metal that they use to slide into a car door to pop the lock...that’s not called Jimmying a lock, but I’m not sure why. Jimmying a lock requires the use of a crow bar. I’m not sure why everything surrounding B&E or grand theft auto is referred to with my name...but that’s another story altogether. Any way, I’m not sure it’s even legal to own a Slim Jim in Virginia. Doesn’t matter, I couldn’t find one on short notice. So I started to search the web. (I just looked it up and it turns out that possession of a Slim Jim in Virginia could be used as evidence of criminal intent) A couple of the websites I visited were blocked by the office. Was that because the Slim Jim appeared on a “shady website”? I don’t know, but at least a number of tools came up for sale. A basic model sells for about $19.99. But then you can buy an entire kit, at least six different shapes and sizes for around $100 bucks. No thank you, I just need one working Slim Jim. Then I got a hit on a website that intrigued me. It was a do it yourself video on how to fabricate a Slim Jim. Really, are they that easy to make?  I pulled up the page and looked at some of the pictures describing what they were talking about. 

A Slim Jim is really just a long thin piece of spring steel with a notch cut at one end and a handle at the other. If I could find a long thin piece of steel or plastic at the office, I thought, I might be in business. But how would I cut the notch? I figure if I found the steel first, I could figure out how to cut the notch. The DIY website said it was possible to open a car, between the door and the window, with a coat hanger, but generally speaking it was too hard to control. The spring steel is the right way to do it. So I dismissed the coat hanger idea and went in search of office spring steel. Anybody know where to find spring steel in the office? Well, here is the secret, and I bet you have a Slim Jim sitting in your desk right beside you. Everyone of the green Pendaflex hanging folders in your desk drawer have two pieces of spring steel in the top of them. They are what makes the hanging folder able to hang. I immediately ripped one out of the standard 8 ½ by 11 hanging folder and judged the 12 inch length to be too short. But what about a legal sized hanging folder? It took another 60 seconds before I located a stash of the longer folders. 14 inches still looked short, but with my small car, maybe it was sufficient. When I had the longer piece separated from the folder I stared at the notch that has already been cut into the spring steel. It’s already there. No need to do more. Maybe some tape around the opposite end to use as a handle. I was in business. 

First I called the security police and told them I’d be out trying to break into my car. They didn’t seem too concerned. Then I grabbed a friend (not Angelina) and immediately went out to my car to give it a try. I wanted a witness there in case the cops decided I was trying to break into a car. Of course that’s exactly what I was trying to do. But the witness, could at least back up my story. So I inserted the slender device between the glass and the rubber seal on the door side and slide it into the interior of the door. I could move it easily and felt around for what might be the linkages for the door lock. I couldn’t feel anything. I immediately I determined that even 14 inches was too short in this case. 

But also knowing there is just about an unlimited supply of hanging folders back in the office I went back to see if I could lengthen my common office supply Slim Jim by connecting two of them together. This turned out to be very easy. I overlaid them about three inches and taped them together with masking tape. I didn’t even seek out the high durability and multi-purpose duct tape. Then I wrapped masking tape around the handle until it made a nice size ball that was easy to hold on to. I grabbed my friend who was doing a few web searches on my car door to find a schematic and we headed back to the parking lot. He said the schematic shows the rod we are looking for is pretty much right below the door lock so he located the point on the car door we were looking for and I placed the longer Slim Jim between the glass and the door and pushed in down. Oh, yeah, based on the schematic I bent the spring steel a little toward the inside of the car and kept the hook towards the back of the car. I poked around for about five seconds and my friend said right there, he could see the door lock jiggling. So I moved the Slim Jim back to that area and moved it back and forth until he saw the lock jiggle again. When he said it was jiggling I pulled up on the Slim Jim. I pulled up with very little force… The lock popped right light as a feather. And I was in. 

The whole break-in took less than a minute. I’m fairly certain that with a little knowledge and a good Slim Jim, entering the car is the easy part. So let’s say 10 seconds. To be gone in 60 seconds, you would also have to hot wire it. Maybe that’s for another time. But for now, here is a picture of my homemade Slim Jim...which is no longer in my possession....if you just happen to be in Virginia law enforcement and are reading this blog.  But just remember, who doesn't have about 100 Pendaflex folders and a roll of masking tape at their desk?