To deal with the times: Don’t go numb


“How inured to that do I want to get?”
“Just enough.” (from this week’s episode of Madam Secretary)

The problem we face, beyond the immediate stripping of democratic tradition and human rights, and all the diversionary fires set to distract us, is our own boredom, our own fatigue, our own journey toward being inured to what is happening: “It isn’t so bad.”

Almost everyone knows that the intensity of any feeling cannot be sustained: anger, passion, love. Perhaps especially the attention span. We have neither the attention span for sustained fighting, even if we have our own lifelong cause, nor the attention span to maintain laser-like focus on one thing while all the distractions explode all around us. And that’s what is counted on – at least with the way things are going in the politics and government section of society. Isn’t that kind of everything, though? Society and our place in it? We know what happens if we bury our heads in the sand: nothing good.

Where is the line between burying our heads/distracting ourselves/avoiding reality and allowing ourselves some diversion to regain our strength and focus, to learn and prepare for everything the world is throwing at us? Something that keeps us from burning out?

I had a conversation the other day that made me think of the concept of ‘burning out’. It was about learning languages, actually, and how I took on languages as though it were a PAC-MAN game. Keep gorging. Gobble gobble gobble. Naturally I burned out on the whole idea of being a student.

J: When I was 22, I wanted to play frisbee and kiss girls.
Me: I loved learning languages much more when I was young. Now I would prefer kissing girls and running through the forest.
J: Well – a true Renaissance woman would be able to do all of those things. Concomitantly.
Me: I burned myself out on studiousness.

I had, back then, and even throughout my 20s, believed that I would always be a student. (Yes, we are always students throughout our lives – learning never ends unless we are willfully ignorant and closed off. Here I refer to living as a formal student, enrolled in a study program.) It became so much a part of who I was that it stopped having much meaning. And this, too, is a symptom of the aforementioned malaise/”issue fatigue”: even when you are not only passionate about a cause, but your life or livelihood depends on it (healthcare activists, equality/civil rights activists, etc.), you still get so beaten up and worn down that the fight, too, can start to feel meaningless.

Once I was burned out on applying myself to studies, I focused on other things and purposely tried to numb myself with overdoses of work and TV. I stopped reading because I wanted to sidestep meaning and feeling. Incidentally, a lot of formal education feels like it is designed to sidestep meaning, feeling and independent thought, which is why we also need committed education activists who prioritize the fostering of creative and independent thinking. (“Poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.”)

This numbness is the most dangerous thing. We must in these times find the path that lets us balance the pain and frustration against the will to fight and hope for something better (that we may never see).

…As a side note, at least not every interaction with television is empty; in a recent episode of Call the Midwife, we experienced real beauty with a taste of Federico Garcia Lorca.

And in Madam Secretary, a most apt Kierkegaard quote:
“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

It’s True
-Federico Garcia Lorca
Ay, the pain it costs me
to love you as I love you!
For love of you, the air, it hurts,
and my heart,
and my hat, they hurt me.
Who would buy it from me,
this ribbon I am holding,
and this sadness of cotton,
white, for making handkerchiefs with?
Ay, the pain it costs me
to love you as I love you!

Es verdad
¡Ay que trabajo me cuesta
quererte como te quiero!
Por tu amor me duele el aire,
el corazón
y el sombrero.
¿Quien me compraria a mi,
este cintillo que tengo
y esta tristeza de hilo
blanco, para hacer panuelos?
¡Ay que trabajo me cuesta
quererte como te quiero!

Photo (c) 2013 Justin Elliott

Lunchtable TV Talk: Madam Secretary


Sometimes this show is attempting to be like something else… something self-important or something like The West Wing but it isn’t.

It’s not the greatest show, but I like it. I realized that it’s cast chemistry that makes it work even though it is not the best show on tv. And other shows – more starkly this season than any other in recent memory – may have a decent premise but fail largely because they seemed to cast in a vacuum. Like, “Oh, John Stamos is available. We’ll get him for Grandfathered.” But then the rest of the cast was assembled, one by one, in the same way, with no actual testing to see if chemistry existed – or just in a calculated but ad hoc way, i.e. trying to come up with racial equations to make the show look diverse or something similar. And the result is annoying and disruptive to storytelling.

Madam Secretary is fairly formulaic in its storytelling, but the cast gels well. Téa Leoni seems like someone who could have been a CIA officer who ends up in cabinet-level government service quite by accident. Željko Ivanek – well, he fits in everywhere. And Tim Daly – well, I love him. Well, you know, Wings.

Suddenly Kevin Rahm


I had seen him in other places like Judging Amy and Desperate Housewives (neither being shows I actually watched), so Kevin Rahm never registered with me. But now he is everywhere. He has been Mad Men’s (newly moustachioed) Ted Chaough, Bates Motel’s bad guy Bob Paris and Madam Secretary’s somewhat mad external strategist, Mike B. It is Rahm’s moment.

His simultaneous ubiquity put him on my TV obsessed radar, but I do wonder what his future holds. He is sort of an everyman, can even appear a bit on the milquetoast side. Either he can play this everyman everywhere or he can be more of a secret weapon – displaying the ability to blend in like an everyman before unleashing some craziness and villainy on unsuspecting viewers.