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Trillions

31 In The Field of Gold

in the field of gold by Ellen Jantzen

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

“All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.” Ronald Reagan

Yes, those were the words spoken by a man who was Governor of California and President of the United States, a man revered by millions of People With Small Brains. I stumbled upon that example of Reagan’s snotty idiocy while hunting for cogent things people have said about waste, and though Reagan was rarely cogent—and the world might be a better place had he, in his youth, sat for a few hours at a desk under which was stored a year’s waste from a nuclear power plant—his remark struck me as an apt preamble to the problem I want to discuss with you.

“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.” Henry David Thoreau

Not so long ago, when Americans in relatively large numbers (one per cent of the population?) still actively protested the dastardly wars sponsored by the imperial supranational overlords—before voluntary servitude to cell phones won the day entirely—I attended a big peace march and rally in San Francisco at which the brilliant historian and political scientist Michael Parenti spoke.

Early in his remarks, Parenti enumerated the good that could be accomplished if money spent to build the latest species of fighter jets for the American arsenal was spent instead on education, healthcare, and helping those living in poverty. And I noticed that the moment Parenti intoned the words billions of dollars, the crowd lost all interest in what he was saying and he might as well have been speaking to five people instead of the fifty thousand gathered to protest the wasteful stupidity of war.

Since then—my Parenti epiphany—I have confirmed on numerous occasions that while many people can hang with discussions involving one or two million dollars, any sum larger than that has little or no meaning to most of us. Why? Because money is real and important in our lives, and real money to most people is much less than a million dollars.

When we enter the realm of billions—a billion is a thousand million—we might as well speak of neon gorganzalids. Huh? Neon whats? The imperial overlords are well aware that we cease to pay attention when talk turns to hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, and not paying attention is what they want us to be doing while they rob us blind, year in and year out.

“Why waste time learning, when ignorance is instantaneous?” Bill Watterson

In 2008, when the worldwide Goldman Sachs-created toxic derivative hedge fund Ponzi scheme bubble burst all over the world, the imperial overlords ordered their operatives at the Federal Reserve to spend an initial trillion dollars to prop up the collapsed financial regime (while doing nothing for the unwashed masses) and thereafter ordered the Federal Reserve to spend a hundred billion a month to re-inflate the bogus stock hedge fund derivatives bubble. You’re getting drowsy aren’t you?

That’s my point. Government-condoned financial thievery of epic proportions goes on every day in America, thefts totaling at least ten trillion dollars in the last seven years, and we the people have no concept of what those thefts mean in relation to our collective and individual lives. You and I could sure use seventy dollars or seven hundred dollars or seven thousand dollars—wouldn’t that be nice?—but millions and billions and trillions…snore.

Add to the stolen ten trillion another trillion a year spent on the military and…Huh? Sorry. Dozed off.

“After a certain point, money is meaningless. It ceases to be the goal. The game is what counts.” Aristotle Onassis

On the other hand, sports, sex, food, violence, death, and the breasts and penises of famous celebrities and fashion models, these are things we are hardwired to be interested in. Penelope Cruz in an itsy bitsy bikini. Tom Cruise wearing skimpy underwear. See? You woke up. The overlords know this and have structured modern mass media to inhabit your television computer tablet phone as a never-ending stream of lurid high-definition images and videos of sports, sex, food, violence, death, breasts, and penises, or the bulges therefrom.

The media moguls keep the titillating deluge raining down on us day and night so you and I will pay no attention to the men behind the curtains (referencing The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland version) robbing us of billions and trillions of…your eyes are closing.

“Free will is an illusion. People always choose the perceived path of greatest pleasure.” Scott Adams

The perceived path of greatest pleasure. Hence, Las Vegas. Hence the election of Ronald Reagan and so many others of his kind to positions of great power over us. Hence the dominance of amoral bankers and hedge fund criminals who do grasp the terrible significance of redirecting trillions of dollars representing the collective wealth of the earth into the coffers of a relatively tiny number of Incredibly Greedy People.

What if those trillions had been wisely used for the good of everyone? Hard to imagine. Indeed, our minds boggle when we begin to imagine what our world might become should those stolen trillions ever be spent on reversing the current trends. Yes, our little hardwired breast and penis and food and sex and sports-loving little minds boggle when we try to envision a future in which all the clichés about freedom and equality and sharing the wealth come true. And that’s just how the overlords want our minds to be. Boggled.

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Sad People

The house with no windows

The house with no windows painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“In the silence of night I have often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people.” Judy Garland

The well-known actor Philip Seymour Hoffman killed himself last week with a heroin overdose. He was forty-six. Hoffman was one of those actors who, with the notable exception of his portrayal of Truman Capote in the movie Capote, generally played himself—an intelligent and somewhat cynical depressive. Because Hoffman wasn’t acting, in the sense of pretending to be someone he wasn’t, if the script was good and Hoffman was well cast, he was wholly believable as a real person—a rarity in contemporary American movies. If the writing was bad and the actors miscast, as in A Late Quartet, Hoffman, through no fault of his own, verged on the ridiculous.

As Truman Capote, the role for which he won an Academy Award, Hoffman presented a restrained and studied imitation of the real Truman Capote’s voice and mannerisms, an imitation I found maddeningly unbelievable, perhaps because I have an entirely different idea about who and what Truman Capote was than the character executed by Hoffman.

My opinion aside, Philip Seymour Hoffman was regarded as one of the best American character actors of the last fifteen years. He was wealthy, respected, and the father of three children with his devoted partner. Yet he killed himself with the heroin he habitually injected to find temporary respite from what proved to be terminal self-loathing.

Tens of thousands of people commit suicide in America every year, but we don’t often hear about those deaths unless the manner of dying is sensational. However, the suicide of a famous person is big news in our celebrity-obsessed society, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s suicide resurrects the age-old question: why would someone so successful and adored and in the prime of his life want to stop living? The unstated implication of that question is that we know why unsuccessful and unloved people want to end their lives, but why would a revered star want to die?

One answer to the question of why a successful and well-liked person would commit suicide (while still relatively young) is that self-perception is rarely, if ever, altered by the perceptions others have of us. Indeed, if others perceive us differently from how we perceive ourselves, those contrary perceptions rarely penetrate our consciousness.

If we feel we are useless and pathetic and inadequate, and someone tells us with great sincerity that we are useful and admirable and capable, we might enjoy that praise for a moment, but such praise will not alter the foundational self-assessment implanted in childhood and reinforced by the accompanying continuous loop recording blaring away in our unconscious mind every minute of every day: you are just no good!

As it happens, most people who suffer from extreme self-loathing are also supremely self-involved. This is neither ironic nor surprising when we understand that the maintenance of self-loathing requires self-fixation. Good or bad or mundane, for the narcissist everything must be about the self—all else irrelevant.

“I need the applause.” Jerry Lewis

When I was in high school, much to the dismay of my parents, I stepped off the academic path preparing me for medical school and signed up for Drama. I loved acting, and I especially loved being in the company of so many beautiful emotive girls who wanted to be actresses. I aspired to write plays, too, and had at my disposal many eager young thespians to act out the scenes I wrote for them, which was a fantastic learning experience for me.

I was fifteen when I got my first part in a school play—the minor role of Franklin Roosevelt’s son in Sunrise at Campobello. This was an ideal first role for a young actor because I was onstage for much of the play, pushing the actor playing Franklin Roosevelt around in his wheelchair, but I only had a few lines to memorize and just one slightly meaty scene. Thus I got to bask in the electricity of a live performance in front of an audience without any great dramatic responsibilities.

Nevertheless, I comported myself well enough so that the applause from the audience swelled just a bit when I came out to take my bow at play’s end, and I vividly remember how my body received the applause as if I was being injected with happiness, an injection that made me high as a kite for hours thereafter. I noticed, however, that when I came down from that high, I was anxious and fidgety and desperate to experience that same sort of high again.

By the end of my senior year in high school I had been in seven plays and was addicted to that scalp-tingling rush from being enthusiastically applauded. However, I was also painfully aware that the euphoria I experienced from such mass approbation was becoming shorter and shorter-lived with every performance, and that in the aftermaths of those transitory highs, I experienced debilitating lows, such that I began to dread applause and the ensuing depression, which fear decided me not to pursue an acting career, but to focus instead on mastering writing and music, the pursuit of such mastery insuring a lack of applause for many years to come if not forever.

“The point is not to take the world’s opinion as a guiding star but to go one’s way in life and work unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause.” Gustav Mahler

Easier said than done, Gustav. The advice of this famous composer works better for me if we change the word point to practice, because the world’s opinion—which I take to mean the opinions of others—can make the difference between an artist earning enough money to live on from his or her work, or not earning enough. Therefore, to withstand the slings and arrows of such potent external forces, one’s internal sense of self must be especially strong and positive, and we must fervently believe that what we are endeavoring to create has value regardless of our worldly success or lack thereof.

“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” Pema Chödrön

I don’t think we can rescue anyone. We can momentarily save a drowning person, but there is no way to stop that person from jumping overboard once our backs are turned. Still, I’ve known many marvelous people struggling with some murderous addiction or another, and I have many times fantasized that if I could only spirit them away to an island from which there was no escape and where they had no access to the killing substances they were addicted to, that with the guidance of a wise master they would finally come face to face with those terrible internal threats they were trying to suppress by shooting heroin or getting drunk or eating too much, and they would undergo cataclysmic emotional and spiritual crises and come out the other side into a state of being that is, in the words of Shunryu Suzuki, “Not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.”

Which is what happens, more or less, to addicts and depressives who experience life-saving transformations, except not usually because someone kidnaps them and takes them to some mythic isle presided over by a bodhisattva. No, something inside them, something more powerful than the command to self-sabotage leads them through the fiery labyrinth of self-hatred and crippling self-doubt and into meaningful communion with others. But if that divine spark is not in them, or the spark has grown too weak to become a flame, that person will inevitably seek escape from suffering through other means, a needle or a bottle or a flight through space to the unyielding ground.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Albert Camus

Just a few months after I graduated from high school, Henry, one of the boys in my Drama class, committed suicide. Henry was a fantastic actor, though he never got a part in one of the school plays. I knew of his talent because every Friday the Drama students would perform scenes and monologues we were supposed to learn and practice during the week. Our grades for the semester were determined almost entirely by the grades we got for our Friday performances, and Henry never failed to bring us all to our feet cheering and applauding his performance.

Whereas I rarely did more than memorize my lines and practice my scene a few times before the Friday performance, Henry rehearsed his monologues and scenes hundreds of times, spent hours in front of the mirror creating his costume, and before each performance would have a makeup artist make him up to look stunning under the stage lights he would carefully orchestrate to fit the moods of his scenes.

Sometimes Henry did comedy, sometimes tragedy, but underpinning every performance he gave was an almost unbearable sorrow that brought even the most glib and cynical among us to tears.