Wednesday, June 8, 2016

I Am Not Oblomov

The “hour of the wolf,” midwinter, three a.m.: A sleepless Russian uncle feels with cold clarity the greyness of his life, and so he pours a glass of vodka to keep the wolf on the other side of the cabin door; meanwhile I pray in the pitiless dark, “Lord, I don’t want to be an Oblomov.”

It’s an old, old fear of mine. Decades ago I saw the movie Oblomov, (1980) based on the Russian literature novel where the main character wastes his life, and then, at last, admits to his condition, “Oblomovitus.” In the movie version, Oblomov spends nearly all his time at home, with no job, like a human sloth. He can afford to sloth around because he is a member of Russia’s “one per cent”: He doesn’t have to work. In America, some people are known to work for a living, then in their off hours they default to being a “couch potato.” Call this being “Oblomov light.”

(By the way, the movie was made before the word “couch potato” (coined in 1979) became popular)

My fear, made manifest by Oblomov, goes back to boyhood. I can recall holding a wooden tinker toy, pretending it had a secret radio set inside, while reading a grim adult book about prisoners of war hiding their radio from the Japanese. They’d put dust over the cracks in the wood to conceal the radio lid. They got caught—A terrible fate.

That book was James Clavel’s King Rat. I have since learned Clavel could not start his novel writing career until he first wrote King Rat to get the horrors of being a prisoner out of his system. Imagine a “hundred thousand men” penned up with nothing to do. (Forget about any prisoner “working” on escape—the goddam Japanese never signed the Geneva Convention: to escape meant death for innocent fellow prisoners) Why not work on getting an education? As Clavel writes:

QUOTE (page 114) …languages and art and engineering… there was at least one man who knew any subject.

The knowledge of the world. A great opportunity. Broaden horizons. Learn a trade. Prepare for the utopia that would come to pass once the goddam war ended and things were back to normal. And the university was Athenian. No classrooms. Only a teacher who found a place in the shade and grouped his students around him.

But the prisoners of Changi were just ordinary men, so they sat on their butts and said, “Tomorrow I’ll join a class.” Or they joined and when they discovered that knowledge comes hard they would miss a class and another class and then they would say, “Tomorrow I’ll rejoin. Tomorrow I’ll start to become what I want to be afterwards. Mustn’t waste time. Tomorrow I’ll really start.”

But in Changi, as elsewhere, there was only today. UNQUOTE

A Trick
As an adult I found a trick, a hack, a “work around”: I knew that, like the heroes in Changi, I was an ordinary man. And so I resorted to seeing myself as even less ordinary. I told people: “I’m a recovering wimp.” Adding, “Anything thing I say I’m going to do, I have to do it.” If I say I’m going to a weekend company first aide course, I am there. (Not everyone shows up) For any weekly course, even if it’s a bunch of volunteers helping each other to grind through a workbook, I’m there every single week without fail.

Like a recovering alcoholic, I fear I have no safety margin. It’s all or nothing. Let others think I’m a conscientious guy who keeps his word.  Let them think I have enough self-esteem not to procrastinate. I know the P.O.W. side of me.

As a child, it might seem I would have the energy to play all day. It might seem that if I read books as a child then it was only like how I’d watch exciting Saturday morning cartoons instead of going outside, or like how the boy in Diary of a Wimpy Kid wanted to spend his summer inside playing exciting video games. It might seem so—but I’m not quite that charitable to myself. For although in my endless childhood I could endlessly play, I was also a sloth… at least, I think I was. And I have long feared returning to that.

First Word: Depression
But maybe I don’t have to worry anymore. Maybe I am being needlessly fearful. For with my adult eyes, this week, I can see something, two words, that no one in society would grasp back then. For grown adults we had the word: “depression.” But I don’t think if it's possible—even now—to diagnose medical depression in a child. Children and their hormonal chaotic brains are too hard to measure.  (see footnote) And yet… I’m thinking of my best friend saying, “To be gay and to be in the closet (to oneself) is to live with a low grade depression, and not even know it.”

Note to religious friends: Until “yesterday,” it was common at church to say that people would grow up into worldly adults and then make a choice to be gay. Today scientists say that being gay is not a choice, and that innocent children can be gay while still in school, perhaps terrified and despairing, or perhaps in the closet to themselves, years before they are adults. I say this not as an atheist, but as a God-fearing man.

Second Word: Abuse
Now I am speculating that depression in a child can cause a symptom of sloth. This week I am thinking that depression in an adult, and in a child too, can be caused by abuse. This week on CBC radio I heard the word “abuse” as three people, two women and a man, testified to being abused by their siblings, not by their parents. “Abuse” is the new word I am facing. One woman said she did not hear the word “abuse” from any therapist until she was in her mid-thirties. But once she had the word abuse in her vocabulary, everything in her adult life made sense for the first time. That radio show has rocked my world, for I have only used that word out loud once in all the years since I was my mid-thirties. Here’s the link

Like that lady, I too was in my mid-thirties when I grasped the word. I remember I was talking with a 26 year old, and to make sure I wasn’t patronizing her I said I was 36 and that I wouldn’t have known X back when I was 26… and then she said I intimidated her because “you see things due to your abuse issues.” Such a jolt. I filed the phrase away, a phrase I had never applied to myself, and didn’t much think about it. Until last week when I caught that CBC show. And now I’m looking back; trying to admit things. As far as I can see, society may at long last, since the Columbine school massacre, realize that bullying can lower self esteem, but we aren’t ready to realize that ongoing abuse, as a man on the radio was careful to say, is utterly destroying of “soul” and “self-esteem.” He said it destroys “right to the core.” When he hitchhiked as a minor he was amazed that people were nice to him. (Yes, of course normal people at his school and in his community were nice, but soul-destruction cancels that out) I can relate. This may not sound logical, but such is the empirical evidence: Hail, flood and fire do not destroy people at the core. Abuse does.

I hope to soon spend a whole day reading. Without fearing Oblomov. I haven’t done so in long, long time. My buddy Blair Petterson, a few years ago, was excited on hearing I planned to soon re-read the classic Dhalgren. It’s a thick book.  Blair advised me to make sandwiches on Saturday morning before I started so I wouldn’t have to stop reading to cook lunch.

But “soon” still hasn’t happened yet. I really want to have enough self-esteem/ entitlement/ permission to read for a whole day. I will pray on it.

Sean Crawford

~Update on children's brains:
-A mother who's son will be forever living with mental illness tells me she hadn't known that marijuana can harm a growing brain right up until the early 29's.

-In an AP story out of London, in the June 9 2016 Sun page 50, researchers say regarding drugs for depression in children and teens "some may be unsafe, and the quality of evidence about these drugs is so bad the researchers cannot be sure if any are truly effective or safe. According to Dr. Cipriani of Oxford, "We now have a hierarchy of pharmaceutical treatments and the only one that is better than placebo and other drugs is Prozac." 
According to Jon Jureidini of the U of Adelaide, "There is little reason to think that any antidepressant is better than nothing for young people."

~Memory is sticky, both conscious and unconscious. I see on Amazon book reviews how many people downgrade King Rat far more than they should because they just can’t help comparing the book to their memories of Clavel’s “Asian saga” from after he began to really write.

~J.G. Ballard was a civilian prisoner as a boy. I think his bizarre science fiction is how he got it out of his system. They say he spent years running away from his prison time, and then years approaching it again, until he could write Empire of the Sun. I think the movie version by Spielberg would have done better box-office if only moviegoers had not been expecting a magical uplifting film like the recent E.T. the Extraterrestrial.

~ I’m glad there were trials for war criminals in the Pacific Theatre.

~I remember attending a modern dance based on Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren. The guy I went with wondered if the choreographer had finished the book, because so few readers do. How come classics are always so long? What I did was begin with the middle third, then instead of going on to the end I decided I was motivated enough to cover the beginning third, then I finished the last third. Next time I will read Dhalgren straight through.

~The Russian was the uncle of Commander Ivanova, she of the five-mile-long space station Babylon-5. My own comfort drink for the hour of the wolf is hot coffee in a mug I can warm my fingers with. I honor Babylon-5 in my essay Death of Buffy archived January 2012.

~Seldom are things neutral on the field of human affairs. If you are mired in denial and confusion, if you’re having immense trouble deciding whether you are being “abusive,” then ask yourself: Am I being “nurturing?” It’s usually one or the other. The by-product of this reasoning is a new way of life where you try to be nurturing in every encounter with friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. It’s a good and satisfying way of life. I know.

~Columbine school is a fading memory. I am sure that if society relaxes on our new efforts to end bullying, then society will relax on knowing that bullying can reduce self-esteem. After all, that’s how ignorant we were before Columbine. By our ignorance we didn’t think that bullying should even be stopped. At that time, as I read in a book for parents, teachers and students, Bullying Solutions, a man could attend a ten-year high school re-union and be very surprised that his victim still remembered the bullying, still hated him for being a bully. I mention the book in footnotes to my essay Saving Tomorrow Land, archived August 2015.

~As a scientist and artist I don’t believe in falsifying reality. If I have found peace then besides ROM file degradation, it’s merely from not clicking on certain memory files. I suppose Clavel must have used the same trick.
(I know my nightmares, which started after the safety of leaving home, had stopped by the time I was 36, when one of my peers did a short story about self confidence from nightmares ending; I don’t know if Clavel was that lucky with his dreams)

I honor James Clavel in my essay Poetics of Communism and the Beautiful Art of War archived February 2015.

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