RIP, Robin Williams: Let’s Stop Suicide Being An Avenue to Peace

Like many people around the globe, Monday night I was stunned to hear that Robin Williams had died at 63. Of all the celebrity deaths that have happened in the past five years – and it sure seems like we’re killing them off at a good pace – Williams actually hit me hard. I mean, jeez. This is Robin freaking Williams we’re talking about. He’s been around as a funny man for ages. I admired the man, loved his work, thought he was one of the greatest actors of my age.

And now, he’s gone. Forever.

More than the cold hard fact that he is dead, though, was how he died. The sheriff’s initial report said it was suicide by asphyxiation. Williams didn’t die from disease, or an accident, or natural causes, or – heavens forbid – foul play. No, he died by his own hand, apparently to relieve whatever pain or discomfort he was going through in his life.

Williams is not the first person in my life who has chosen suicide as a way to alleviate pain.

When I was a kid, I had one friend who was my greatest friend of all. Out of respect to his family, I will not go into many details; for this story, let us call him Richard. Richard was kind of an odd duck, but he was funny, lively, and had a great imagination. He was also one of the closest friends in my life, and in many ways shaped who I am today. But in addition to this, Richard had…issues. For some time, doctors were putting him on mental medication, for reasons I could not discern. He always complained about the doctors, had arguments with them, and to be honest to my eyes I didn’t think there was anything wrong. The only issues I could ever see was that he would have low energy, or sometimes walk around and mutter strange things. But to be honest, that could describe anybody over the age of forty, so I didn’t really pay it any mind.

After awhile, he started to get better. During the latter part of my adolescence, we were two guys who weren’t part of the social mainstream in any way, but we functioned and we continued. We had fun, we talked about serious topics, even played D&D (once) and Halo (a lot). I really thought Richard was on the up and up, and soon he would be going off to college and becoming a nuclear engineer in the military.

I was 18 when I heard the news. I was driving home from my summer job as a contract archivist. I pulled in the driveway, up to the garage door, when my mother comes running down the stairs, the phone in her hand, crying hysterically. She told me that Richard had shot himself, that he was dead, and I should probably go see his family.

He lived down the road from me, so I walked. I was just stunned. To this day, one of the things that really stuck out in my memory was that I didn’t shed a single tear. Instead, I just walked down the road with my mouth wide open, my body shaking in a silent scream. I was just so empty. I thought something was wrong with me. But no, I realized afterwards, there was nothing wrong with me. This was just how I was dealing with it.

I didn’t see his body until the service; I just saw it taken out on a gurney, wrapped inside of a bag. He left behind a note, a rather cryptic one, and all that was left was to pick up the pieces. I remember talking with somebody – I can’t remember who – that I was really surprised. “He was doing better,” I said. “Why would he do this?”

“Sometimes,” this other person said, “It’s when they’re coming up from the depths that they decide to do this. Because when they’re really down, they can’t get up the energy to pull the trigger. It’s only when they get enough to do it, that’s when it happens.”

I’m paraphrasing, but the basic point stands. You may think they’re doing better. You may think they’re “all right.” But nobody knows what truly goes on in the hearts and minds of other people. What you get, at best, is an edited simulacrum. So take the time to talk to people. Take an hour of your time and really understand them. Listen to them. Be there for them. If you truly care, then they are more than worth an hour of your life. My friend was certainly worth an hour. Hell, he was worth an entire month. I would have gladly taken that time to talk to him about his issues.

These people are trying to find peace from all their pain and suffering. That’s all. It’s not selfish, cowardly, or anything at all like that. In the state they are in, they are suffering deeply, and they need peace – and when they get to this point, suicide is the only option that occurs to them.

So do that. If someone you know is depressed, or worse perhaps suicidal – or even if they don’t appear to be at all – take a moment. Talk with them. Maybe take an entire hour, or more. Just talk with them, let them know you’re there and you want to help. That’s all. I didn’t do that because I didn’t recognize what was happening. Don’t share the same regret I feel today.

Your Life Is Worth An Hour

Above picture from the Facebook page “Your Life Is Worth An Hour“.

Social Media Vacay

Everyone tells me I need to be on social media if I want my stuff promoted. I gotta be on there to be heard, to be seen, to get things done.

If I’ve learned anything in the past few years, though, it’s that that may not be necessarily true. Indeed, social media has some serious pitfalls. My favorite ones are flamewars with trolls. It was one of them, in fact, that led me to this policy of taking a social media vacation.

I’ve learned that I cannot resist getting into arguments; I can’t resist trolls. That something I lost, somewhere, aand I need to reclaim that. How? I don’t know. But a prerequisite has to be stepping back from social media. It’s hurting my productivity, hurting my wider social sphere, and ultimately it’s hurting my brain.

So I’m taking a break from Twitter & Facebook. I’ve downloaded an app that only does Twitter DM’s, and I’ll keep using Facebook Messenger so people can get in touch with me. Other than that, just Gmail & this blog. Thanks to the magic of WordPress, I can still write status updates. And thanks to the magic of RSS, I can autopost these to Twitter and Facebook.

I see this as an extension of some cutting I’ve already done in my life. A few months ago I uninstalled Steam and basically eliminated computer games from my life. Now I need to continue the process and get rid of–at least temporarily–another serious distraction.

I’m not sure why I had to blog this, really, other than to tell my friends who are going to start wondering, but if you stumble across this and read this, that’s what this is about. I will still be politically minded; I will still have strong opinions about political philosophy and government. I will still write, though hopefully not on Twitter (I will maintain my vow, I will maintain my vow…) but through other channels.

That’s all I have. If you know me personally, you can still hit me up through messaging. If you don’t, you can always comment here.

Something I’ve learned from “The Heat”

In theaters now.
In theaters now.

Yesterday, I went and saw the new movie The Heat with friends. I hadn’t even heard of it before I went (sue me, I don’t watch TV commercials, or all that much of TV, honestly), but I had a free comp ticket so I decided to use it. (I got the comp ticket from the last time I went, when the movie projector about to show Star Trek: Into Dorkness blew a bulb. Should’ve been a sign right there…)

I was told, shortly before I went to see the movie, that The Heat is a chick flick, but it really isn’t. It’s just a hilarious buddy-cop film that happens to star women as both of the cops. I’m not going to spoil the movie for you, because it’s really quite a good film. I laughed so hard my ribs threatened to burst their way out of torso. What surprised me, however, was that I actually got a life lesson out of it. This happens quite rarely for me, mainly because I think most Hollywood writers are, frankly, idiots about life, or they just have such different experiences from me that their “lessons” are simply inapplicable to me. Or maybe they aren’t writing in any life lessons at all. Or maybe I’m just a dense, misanthropic jerk. I don’t know. But it just never happens.

Except this time.

Sandra Bullock’s character, FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn, is socially inept. (Somewhat like me.) She’s an extremely career focused individual (okay, that’s not me) who grinds on other people’s nerves because of this dearth of people skills. She’s also very interested in all sorts of learning (yep, me), and her head is full of data.

The crucial scene, in this case, is after Ashburn–together with her unofficial partner, Boston PD detective Shannon Mullins–basically gets kicked off the case by her boss, just took Mullins’ family and stashed them in safe house, and is now at a Denny’s having lunch with Mullins. Naturally, the two get into an argument, where Mullins says that Ashburn thinks she knows everything.

“I don’t,” Ashburn says. “I just know a lot of things, and then I tell people what I know!”*

That struck me pretty close. I have been accused, over the years, of speaking in a very “matter of fact” tone, which is offputting to a lot of people. I’m not trying to be a jerk, I’m just explaining something or pointing out a fact, but people still take it the wrong way. I’m sure it has to do with my delivery; I’m a writer, not an orator. I would suck being a politician because I could never give speeches.

I’ve tried dealing with this before, in some ways, though it never seems to work. I think that this is basically who I am, a part of me, just as I am over six feet tall, white, and have a face that looked like it was chopped out of a slab of ham with a meat cleaver. Some people will deal with it, as I have. Others will be frustrated, but that’s their problem.

Yet hearing this in a feature presentation shocked me. Maybe this is a part of me, but I can still try to do better. Maybe just stop using facts and knowledge. Maybe stop explaining things to people. But then where would we be? Or I, for that matter?

So I’m not sure what the precise lesson for me is. But in general, I need to try harder when I talk to people, that they don’t see a reason to hate me or get pissed off at me.

Or, I just need to accept that some people are going to get pissed off no matter what.

Hmm. Maybe there wasn’t such a lesson here…

*Paraphrasing here.

This Month in Success & Failure

The good news is, I submitted my entry for the DC shorts screenwriting competition yesterday. It was probably not the best I could do, though I had been fiddling with it off and on for the past month, and I decided that it was time to submit. Supposedly, Leonardo da Vinci once said “Art is never finished, merely abandoned,” and I feel that is quite accurate. However, part of the competition is getting feedback, and since that’s all I really want to obtain, I already consider myself a winner.

The bad news is that I failed to finish the ScriptFrenzy script I was working on. I had to have 100 pages by today, but I think I have somewhere between 20-25 pages. Why? Why did I fail? I think the sole reason was because I did not work on it constantly. I got myself into a position where if I wrote six pages one day, I felt I could take off the next day and not feel bad, but that was a mistake. Seemingly every day I got home from work I would feel wiped and unable to write. On the weekends when I would shoot for big gains, whatever I produced was marginal due to multiple reasons (which I won’t really dig into here.)

Ultimately, the lesson I learned is that you must write every single day. Any pause and there will be major issues.

I will continue writing it, however, because the idea that I’ve had for this has been in my head for years, ever since middle school. And I think that, as long as I put my butt in the chair and write–even if its only 3-5 pages a day, or less than that–it will work. It’s all about routine. It’s Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break The Chain” concept. And while to me it seems like a cheap cop-out, I think, after looking back on this, that its the truth.

So I will continue to write and finish this thing, hopefully over the next couple of months. There are already big changes in my life that should help me with that–I’m changing day jobs soon (my current gig is having me bring work home with me and keep it stuffed into my head, which is not fun), and since I recently reinstalled Windows on my home computer (bringing it from the ancient age of XP to the relative modernity of 7) all of my games are gone.

Except for Avernum. Just let me solve that one and I’ll be good, I promise…

On The Need To Stop Choking

I was doing some job searching, and one area I was looking into was English teaching in Japan. I spent a year in Japan while in college, and I must tell you, it was one of the best times of my life. I spent Halloween night alone on a mountain covered in torii, as part of the mammoth Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shinto shrine. (And since I don’t have enough images on this blog, check out this one below:)


A big red tunnel, basically
Yes, it’s THAT place.

It wasn’t just the Shinto shrines that got me, either–the food was amazing (??? for the win), the people were engaging (though maybe that was just because I was a white guy), the weather was unbelievably fantastic, and there vending machines every five steps that would sell you soda, grape juice (that had grapes in it), soup, beer, and hard liquor. (Well, chuhais, so semi-hard liquor.) You could go outside after dark and not worry about getting knifed or robbed. I even loved Japanese furniture; say what you will, but I found that the Japanese futon to be way more comfortable than American beds, and if I could, I would have one. (I think this is because I’m very tall, and frequently my feet hang over the end.) Not to mention, it has wonderful mass transit. Note I said mass transit, and not public transit, for aside from subways, all of the mass transit–trains, buses, and so on–are owned by private companies. Even Japan Rail, which used to be called Japan National Rail, was broken up and privatized in the 80’s. (So yes, the free market does work.) Yes, the language is difficult (I never understood as many kanji as I was expected to, and I could never keep the honorific form of the language straight in my head) but I felt that was a small price to pay for everything else that was so wonderful.

Anyways, I just felt sharing that little bit of my history because the sheer awesomeness of the place drew me back to it during my job hunt. Working in Japan for foreigners is not easy, aside from one area: English teaching. Demand for English teachers is up, or so I’m told, as more Japanese believe English will be a necessary skill for their future job prospects. (Though they should probably be learning Chinese or Hindi as well, just to be on the safe side.)

So I went looking for English teaching jobs. I came across one website, ELT News, and starting reading the blogs. And what do you know, I find something that directly touches upon my experience writing. I’ll excerpt only the relevant part of the post, but if you’re interesting in teaching English in Japan, I encourage you to read the rest of it; the author, Mike Guest, is a pretty darn good writer (bolded emphasis is mine, by the way):

This was a chapter (The Art of Failure, p. 324-344) outlining the difference between choking and panicking using examples from professional tennis, golf, and an airplane crash. Choking, Gladwell argues (with his usual research-based support) is a case in which the agent, under pressure, reverts to a mechanical mode of action or behaviour where he/she becomes overly conscious of every move and thus can’t function with the fluidity of someone who normally has intuitions, skills or an ingrained sense about what to do. Panicking, on the other hand, refers to cases where people stop thinking due to what is called perception narrowing under pressure. Experienced people may choke under pressure, the inexperienced are more likely to panic.

Most readers will be aware of the tendency for many Japanese learners of English to either choke or panic when having to produce or perform under pressure in English. “I went to Canada but I couldn’t say more than a few words. I just forgot what to say,” might be a typical refrain– from somebody who has studied English for eight years and is even proficient on standardized tests. But understanding the difference between the two is crucial.

Some of my students are chokers. They have a reasonably good command of the flow of English, the holistic side. It has worn itself into their cerebral fabric. They ‘know’ the language but, when under pressure, tend to revert to an earlier mechanical stage which causes them to re-think every lexical, grammatical and social nuance of the language, effectively paralyzing them in speech. Choking, Gladwell say [sic], is about thinking too much.

Others, with far fewer ingrained English skills simply lose all perception and panic, grasping wildly at any English expression which might race through their minds. Panicking is about thinking too little. Panicking is often a product of too little experience, such that when any plus-alpha factors appear, the fragile control system easily breaks down.

Addressing panic involves little more than gaining experience, buckling down, applying diligence. It is what Gladwell calls ‘a conventional failure’. But choking is ‘a paradoxical failure’. Gladwell uses a research-based example (one from Claude Steele at Stanford Univ. and one from Julian Garcia at Tufts Univ.) utilizing stereotypes and expected performance to illustrate the difference.

The bolded part is what hit me in the head like a sledgehammer. This is what I’ve been doing for so long with my writing. I’ll write, think, “Oh, this is crap,” then go back and re-edit endlessly, or just walk away. This didn’t happen to me in high school, when I wrote my first novel. (400 pages, too, at the tender age of 15. I think that was a decent start that I failed to capitalize on.) This doesn’t happen to me when I blog. I don’t know why, but somehow, in those two instances–my high school writing and my blogging today–I just don’t think about it that much, I just let it come to me and let it be. But when I write my fiction today, I lock down and struggle to get through.

My problem is I just think too goddamn much.

I blame some of my writing books, for starters. Some of them are very good. Some are okay. Some are terrible. But in any case, I relied too much on them, and so when I started writing, I would think about what I read in them and go, “But my work isn’t matching up to that at all.”

What I have to do now is just say “Screw it” and write it. Forget about what everyone else says; hell, forget what I say, and just do it. I did that with my last story, which I just finished the first draft of a few days ago, and to which I’m rewriting (though substantially; I think if I use different characters, it will be better. We’ll see.) I did that with a story earlier in the year, which didn’t get published, but it was just something I wanted to write, so I did it. I need to keep in that habit and just keep going. I’m bound to hit paydirt some time or another.

Or a wall. One or the other.

A Matter of Faith…and Reason: Part 1

In life, it is always important to reevaluate and question one’s beliefs. Without questioning, one does not change, and how awful would life be if one always stayed the same, stuck in stasis, never evolving? Why, if that happened on a more macro scale, we would still be speaking in grunts!

The other day, my colleagues questioned me on why I held certain political and spiritual beliefs. They aren’t unreasonable questions, although generally I prefer to hash out discussions such as these over blogs and the written word, as I’m not very good as an orator. So, in order to help new readers learn more about me and what they can expect, I’m going to embark on a brief journey on why I hold the theological tenets I do today, so you can learn a bit more about me and so we’re all on the same page.

I mean blog post.

Continue reading A Matter of Faith…and Reason: Part 1