Chasing Squirrels

 

A man in my office spoke of chasing squirrels and laughed. Prone to using comic metaphors, he explained the link to his current life circumstances. The squirrels represent lost causes, things we cannot change—but also the things we shouldn’t try to change. Let things go. Let nature be nature.

I reflected for a moment, struck by the synchronicity. See, this was yesterday, the day before my plan to write this entry, an introduction to my new novel, entitled Blended. Among other things, the first chapter begins with a brief rumination upon—you guessed it—squirrels. In my story, squirrels are also metaphors. They are likewise out of control, symbolic of the wild, yet they mirror humanity, for they are greedy, compulsive, hierarchical, and frail. They dart about our properties, seizing the unseen territories, taking what they can get, but trailing more elegant creatures, like hummingbirds, in the hearts of genteel homeowners. If squirrels care or have boundaries, as in rules, it’s not apparent. They are strong and quick, yet they do not make good choices. They seem blind and reckless, so they keep dying unpleasantly on man’s roads.

Allusively set in 2016, Blended is otherwise about a middle-aged woman, a mother of three, a step-mom to another three, who begins the story roaming the garden of her Oregonian home, picking fights with troublesome thorns, committed to aesthetics. Tillie Marsden observes the critters but she does not fuss over them. She makes better choices, jogs instead of dashing, and prepares for earthquakes and political fallout. She is likely based (because I don’t remember this specifically) on a character in a Geico insurance commercial. You know, the one with the woman who sits by a pool, calling her action star son at the wrong time (‘You’re a mom, it’s what you do’), and casually mocking his father for chasing squirrels, which appear swarm-like in the background. My character isn’t quite as blasé as that, and her husband, her third, isn’t actually obsessed with squirrels. But the point is that something is lurking in society and nature. Despite a comfortable, as in financially settled and peaceful suburban existence, Tillie feels a stirring unease. She needs to do something.

Family and career are twin poles of struggle and unfinished business, but it’s a new endeavor that’s catalytic for Tillie, and therefore the plot of Blended. An involved church-goer, she volunteers at a refugee support program, is assigned to a young Pakistani family that has recently moved to her town, a fictional Eugene-like community named Bishop Grove. Back in her teens, she’d once hosted an Iranian student for a semester. Bad antecedent. Tillie’s long-widowed mother, a stoic conservative of the American Gothic variety, was barely tolerant of that adolescent fancy, so the world citizen spirit was blunted. This latter-day charity is a do-over of sorts. It’s a resurrection of old aptitudes, promising satisfaction, not to mention distraction from autocratic bosses and drudgery. It’s a vacation from dense family drama, a chance to feel useful and recognized as a caring figure. It’s also one woman’s thumb-on-the-nose prep for Trump’s America.

I recently heard Salman Rushdie lament that there are too many books in print today; that the world’s writers could just stop writing and there would be plenty of titles for everyone to read for many years to come. That’s probably true. Over 300,000 books are published, traditionally and not, every year, in the U.S alone. Rushdie therefore opines that today’s writers should ask themselves an important question: not, is my book good, or entertaining? But rather, is it necessary? Is it a worthwhile addition to that already huge mountain of print?

Is Blended a worthwhile addition?

Hmm?

 

 

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The reunion

 

Sometimes you do something spontaneous—something that defies homeostatic caution. I do, anyway. I was overdue for some remembrance. Seeing Christine—I was 99% sure that’s who it was—in the bagel shop, I caught her glance, felt a hit of something and made a decision. After she finishes her phone call, I’ll say hello, I resolved. It had been thirty years since I’d seen her. Twenty years, at least, since I’d seen anyone from high school. Christine and I had been passing acquaintances at best, I thought. She wouldn’t remember me. But that didn’t matter. For reasons I’m about to explain, that didn’t matter.

“Graeme”, she called out, before I could say her name. To say I was caught off guard was an understatement. This, despite the fact that I’d seen her first and had already prepared an approach. She remembered me. I was astonished. By my recollection, I’d been a non-entity in HS: as invisible as any adolescent had ever imagined himself to be, I firmly believed. Christine had been class president. I’m not kidding. She was beyond ‘cool’ or popular. She was gracious, kind—what my father would have called “a class act”—as well as smart, and disciplined. She was even brave. She didn’t just go to school with ‘cool’ kids. She dealt with them.

I decided to share most of this in an e-mail a week later. In the interim I stewed over the prospect of “keeping in touch”, as she had suggested during that light, if genuine ten-minute chat in the bagel shop. Those ten minutes had been long enough for me to confess one or two things: that I hadn’t attended a single reunion since HS (which she probably knew already); that I hadn’t sustained contact with a single member of our class of 86’; that I scarcely recognized half the names she’d name-dropped to me as we spoke. I felt sheepish, embarrassed. I was partially re-enacting an awkward moment from decades past, even as a faint determination stirred in me.

In my e-mail, I shared more about my later and current life: about being a psychotherapist, and more specifically, about my (largely) past work with adolescents, which has long influenced reflections upon that fraught period of my life. I’ve thought about adolescence, talked about it, off and on, with countless people, over the last thirty years. But I’d never talked about it with anyone who’d actually gone through it with me as a peer. To embroider the memory, I evoked the period, recalling what musical icons I liked and didn’t (it was the 80s, past The Who’s halcyon, so there were more in the ‘didn’t’ category), what social or political events once shaped my conscience; what teachers and cliques then inspired or alienated me.

Christine responded promptly, moved by my honest and open-hearted follow-up, and was eager to relate and talk more. Indeed, she was at pains to dispel some of my fossilized projections: the impression that she or some others like her were more mature than I, as I had declared in my e-mail. She admitted that she’d also found some my peers difficult and obnoxious, despite their popularity. She recalled the problem of organizing events, peer activities, having to endure trivial complaints, the self-absorbed superficiality of some. She’d enjoyed my funny observations about the period, the social ambience of HS, and imagined that my sensibility served me in my work.

We followed up with a second meeting, a coffee-talk in the shadow of the old school neighborhood. Anecdotes flowed from those earlier impressions, spinning from one tidbit of recall to the next. I brought an old yearbook along, which further aided memory and stimulated thought. A page filled with handwritten text from a mutual female acquaintance reminded me that while I was once terse and inarticulate (writing single-sentence, banal farewells), the girls were prolific and personable. At this point, Christine further challenged my self-deprecation, saying that I was quiet in HS, but also calm, friendly, and far from obnoxious. Besides, I hardly seemed terse or inarticulate now, she said—regardless of how I once saw myself.

Ultimately, it felt bittersweet, this serendipitous meeting. As Christine and I separated, I almost but didn’t quite regret all the missed reunions and lapsed connections. After all, adolescence remains fixed in my mind as a time when I was not at my best, regardless of what others thought. As a result, I have preferred laying it to rest, and letting go the witnesses. And yet, Christine’s own reflections were compelling, and what once seemed benign or unfulfilling now seems to offer oblique, cathartic promise. She recalled peers who were like me, it seems. She specifically recalled one young man who reported (in retrospect) flitting between groups as a teen, befriending none with any real depth, spending time and energy upon concealment, while concealing that same concealment. That sounded familiar. Christine summarized: at that age, few are at their best, and because many (perhaps most) protect the self from exposure above all else, the young don’t learn to see one another. That’s a problem, she modestly, and without judgment, implied. I may yet change my mind on a few things: I may yet decide to not cheat history; to not deny the witnesses, and thus look upon myself and others from the past with an adult’s perspective.

 

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It’s high time

 

It’s been several centuries since the Sunni Persian poet Rumi waxed lyrical about the value of wine. Intoxication, escapism from anxiety: these were venerated effects once, before the medical or psychological problems related to drugs were apparent or widely known. Ancients bemoaned excess, thinking drunkenness shameful, but they also observed in humans the drive to change consciousness, as important perhaps as our drives towards sex and aggression. We seek freedom from oppressive thoughts, inhibitions…that problem of what others think.

I’ve long felt ambivalent about what intoxicants promise, regardless of what the medical or psychological consequences are. The tacit principles of psychotherapy extol the values of altered consciousness, but through natural means, not via the imbibing or inhalation of a foreign substance. Further, therapy implicitly encourages the exploration of anxiety or depression—the staying with pain—not so much its alleviation, or the substitution of it with pleasure-seeking. These values place my professional (or at least certain sections of it) at odds with many who are not interested in learning about their pain, and therefore addiction or dependency treatment represents a huge faction within mental health services. Implicitly, most of us in this field are wedded to sobriety, and professionally at least, suspicious of so-called altered consciousness, as induced by chemicals. Fortunately, growing knowledge about marijuana, for example, enables a different discussion: one that focuses upon pain, not consciousness. Increasingly, intelligent choices can be made about the types of pain that should be medicated, and those that shouldn’t.

Medical marijuana, or Cannabidiol (CBD), is one of a hundred plus cannabinoids that binds to cannabinoid receptors within the immune system, whereas Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) binds to receptors only within the central nervous system. That distinction has only been known for a few years. THC has intoxicant qualities—a ‘high’—and impacts various areas of the brain, including the basal ganglia (impacting movement), the hypothalamus (hunger), the hippocampus (memory), the cerebral cortex (reality testing and perception), as well as the medulla, which mediates the experience of pain. That marijuana disaffects short-term memory should remind us that in the context of PTSD, for example, or even certain aspects of grief, we might consider that ‘forgetting’—ordinarily an aversive symptom—is a propitious, as in welcome option. CBD does not get a user ‘high’, nor does it increase appetite, and can (unlike THC) treat rather than stir anxiety or psychosis. As an anti-convulsant, it can also be effective in the treatment of epilepsy. However, it can be counterproductive with respect to eating disorders (because it doesn’t stimulate appetite), and ineffective in treating depression, because it blocks THC from producing feelings well-being.

Research indicates that marijuana, whether in configurations of THC or other cannabinoids like CBD, places teenagers, and specifically males aged 16-24, most at risk for addiction, as that is assessed via DSM criteria. Adolescence is a tender period of life, for sure. We all remember what it is (or was) to worry about what others think, especially as a teen, and perhaps males are less socialized to talk about this–that’s the chestnut theory, anyway. But this vulnerable population constitutes just less than 10% of estimated marijuana users in this country. Now that 28 states have legalized use and possession of marijuana, and that legitimate medical uses for CBD have been established, it seems time to remove non-habit forming marijuana from the federal list of Schedule 1 narcotics (for which lack of medical application, plus abuse potential, is a criteria), and to block what has long seemed a tertiary, social effect: the indirect persecution of the black community via the pretext of illegal marijuana use and possession.

As a therapist specializing in addictions treatment, I have long dodged the legalization debate, especially when speaking to clients who are externally motivated to abstain. The legality question has always been in the way, it seems. The real questions—the ones that will persist over time, are the following: what do you want to do about pain? How do you want to raise consciousness?

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Viva The Who

 

I wasn’t quite on a high. On Friday morning, the day after my presentation, I strolled back to the conference center to hear at least one more speaker. I felt relaxed, sort of pleasantly drained, and because my own talk had gone well, I was spared the figurative hangover that otherwise may have left me sour or sluggish. The first talk was about children and trauma; specifically, it covered the story of a garrulous seven-year-old boy who enthused about movies depicting paranormal activity—movies that his mother watched obsessively at home, and that he watched or listened to because he had little choice. Ostensibly, the boy was a fan, but at night he wasn’t sleeping; instead, he was experiencing nightmares, was suffering injuries at school, hitting himself inexplicably. Self-harming. Dissociation. As I listened I thought of Tommy Walker, the fictional subject of my previous day’s talk, who might have shown similar symptoms had The Who’s famous rock opera been fleshed out with more vivid detail. Halfway through this Friday presentation, I was referenced out of the blue: the speaker was making a point about synchronicity, that Jungian/Joseph Campbell cosmic or spiritual construct, and reminding the audience of a biographical tidbit from my talk: that I was born around the time Tommy was in production. I can’t remember the context in which synchronicity was raised, and I had eschewed a spiritual focus in my talk, but as this other speaker continued I chuckled, and not just because my name had been mentioned. For me, this would be a day of synchronicity.

The afternoon would be anything but relaxing. Upon leaving my hotel, I left for the airport, bidding a fond farewell to Santa Fe—a gentle, artful little town, I must declare. At the conference center, in the airport lounge, and even on the plane to Phoenix, I was enjoying the aftermath of Thursday’s success: people were walking up to me, giving me nice compliments, thanking me for giving them a positive, educational experience with my Tommy lecture. I was basking but I was nonetheless anxious. One of my flights had been delayed, forcing me to wait two hours in Phoenix before catching the next flight, a late afternoon shot to Vegas. I’d never been to sin city before and I wasn’t planning to stay long. One night only: see a show, sleep in; then head home the next day. That was the deal. However, my flight was due into Vegas at 6:30, only ninety minutes before show-time. That would make things tight if disembarking, wading through a terminal, finding a shuttle or taxi, traveling downtown, checking in at another hotel, and then zipping over to a concert venue, all before the lights dimmed.

I wasn’t helped by airline seat assignments, or rather, by the lack of them. Southwest books passengers in groups of three, filling their 737 aircraft with roughly one hundred people for each flight. Technically, I was in boarding group C, passenger 35, or something like that. As far as I was concerned, my ticket might as well have read, boarding group no fucking chance. Anyway, someone or thing was looking out for me. I got a seat, right at the back, and was second to last off the plane, exiting around ten to seven. I made it to the taxis at ten minutes after the hour, got to my hotel twenty minutes later still, and—seeing a line that resembled the security check congestion at airports—decided to stash my luggage with bell staff, leaving check-in until later. The walk over to the concert venue was short, just a quick dash over a foot-bridge that overlooked the strip, but it was long enough to stir impressions that would continue over the ensuing twenty-four hours.

In some respects, Vegas was what I’d expected: a hot, steamy oasis, covering me with thick air and adult Disneyland ambience. It was heavily perfumed, with a tobacco fringe—the whiff of a dinosaur demographic, fused to slot machines. And those totems were everywhere: at the airport, in the lobbies of hotels, even next to restaurant entrances. I was half-surprised to not find them in bathroom stalls, where they would have been aptly placed, it seems to me. Beyond that tractor beam pull, sex was on alternative display. At Caesar’s Palace, within a vast lobby area, a phalanx of young women, mostly unattached, prowled in heavy make-up, ignoring men like me and wearing tight dresses that looked about as comfortable as scuba gear. The men seemed fewer, but they also traveled in groups and gazed about a lot. Like the women, they looked like they’d worked hard to be in Vegas: looking good, but more comfortable than their imminent sexual partners. You see, their pain was over. They’d given at the gym, not in the effort to wear clothes or walk in ridiculous shoes.

Past that display, I made it to Caesar’s coliseum, where I was amongst my element, sort of. Scores of middle-aged men, plus their similarly-aged women, mingled and then filed into the arena, there to see—you guessed it—The Who. A year ago, I met Pete Townshend, the band’s songwriter and guitarist, after a sturdy performance in Oakland. He autographed the paper that served as the basis for the Santa Fe lecture, and we spoke briefly. A special moment. This time, seeing The Who was my reward following a job well done, but there would be no private audience with Pete, despite the synchronicity of our shared presence in the desert. Seeing The Who was another peak experience–a spiritual one, or close to it–and the perfect, even predestined climax to a gratifying, triumphant week. Like many others in the audience, I knew their songs by heart; I danced (in place, sort of) and air-guitared like I did during my presentation; I sang along with lyrics like they were the pieces of hymns.

I’m back home now, with my feet on the ground, and my head more or less focused on the week ahead, the hours of listening that I’m privileged to practice. The Who have followed me and are playing this weekend at a festival in Golden Gate Park. A PBS radio commentator remarked that “Won’t Get Fooled Again” features the greatest scream in rock and roll history. It still gives him goosebumps, he said. Amen, I say.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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I climb a mountain

 

I can’t think what will have changed. From the first moment to the most decisive, beginning with distant anticipation, and climaxing with a relaxed strut towards the podium, the range of me was on show. In my imagination, those last few steps should have been heart-stopping. Terror should have taken over, halting my breath, and stripping my voice of all power. My blank gaze, peering into hot lights and eager, expectant faces, should have betrayed my fear, my clammy need to be absent.

In December of last year, while doing some e-mail housekeeping, I sent a message to organizers of the Creativity and Madness Conference, asking them to clarify the status of my then 3-month old application to present my Tommy paper at their next event. Given the lack of response prior to this point, I expected a polite form letter, thanking me for my proposal but rejecting my request. It would have sounded like the kind of letters I get from publishers when they dismiss my queries regarding my novels. No big deal. I was simply striking something off my to-do list, and tidying my ambitions. I’d move on to the next writing project, I figured.

Then came a pleasant surprise, not that my negative streak was anywhere near done with me. Within days of my e-mail, I received a reply from event organizers, apologizing for their delayed response, and asking me to present my paper at the next conference, scheduled for this August. I laughed in semi-belief. The only other time I’d gotten such an affirmation was when I’d…when I’d gotten word that my Tommy paper was to be published, come to think of it. Of course, conference organizers would be interested, I suddenly thought. This was a great opportunity. Those doors that seemed impenetrable now squeaked and moved, showing a gap behind which I saw smiling, inviting faces. It was January. I had seven months to prepare a talk based upon a paper I’d spent ten years writing, off and on. I knew the material like the front and back of my hands. Not only was this not a problem, I was ready to slam dunk, hit a home run; I’d even invent a new sporting metaphor to predict the imminence of my success.

Hold on, I soon cautioned my excitable mind. Hold on. I’ve been saying that short phrase over and over again these last few months. Sometimes the words contain, as in restrain, drunken, inflated thoughts, which otherwise fuel my flights. They pull back upon ideas that leave me breathless, floating on momentum, feeling good but also weightless, like Wylie Coyote finally looking down, realizing he’s in mid-air and that his plan actually sucked. Hold on, I likewise say to nagging doubt, to cynical pride; to envious heart and fearful spirit—four horses of my private apocalypse, ever ready to close ranks and bring me down. Caution reminds me of sober days after, when moments have passed, my carpe has not been diemed, but nobody really notices but me.

That’s what it’s like at night when the mind won’t rest, won’t let go of its spin cycle, and sleep is like a forgotten skill. I feel a portent of failure, hitting me like a dull thud, as that’s the sound of a joke that doesn’t work. Between April and June, I happily distilled my seven-thousand-word Tommy paper into an hour’s power-point display. I selected its best ideas, embroidered with an amusing anecdote or two; I included a dozen or so images, all torn from the internet, to stir associations, give my presentation a powerful edge. I even discovered a few tools in my PP program to inject drama, like fade-ins on photographs. Come late July, I was ready to talk, and barely needed a single note before me to aid my oration. Fascinating insight, profundity, even a song would spin effortlessly off my tongue. Or, at least I’d recite the lines of Tommy’s finale, “Listening to you”:

Listening to you

I get the music

Gazing at you

I get the heat

Following you

I climb a mountain

I get excitement at your feet

Then I traveled to Santa Fe, the site of the conference. On the first day, I regarded the audience, its three-hundred-person-deep girth, and gulped. I listened to speakers whose bio profiles took minutes to announce make dry yet content-thick deliveries. An expert on Leonard Cohen and Carl Jung recited song lyrics and quoted Rumi. A vast crowd of erudite baby boomers gazed lovingly at him and other speakers like they were core members of an established fan base. Suddenly I was in mid-air, gazing at a fan base that was not there, and believing that my plan sucked. No one was interested in Tommy, much less my infantile notions of attachment theory and rock and roll. My jokes were leaden; my anecdotes deadening. The baby boomer crowd would fall asleep, and snore loudly during the lulls within my stuttering delivery.

When my presentation began, my mic failed. Seriously. I felt like uttering that line— ‘is this on?’—to signify a kind of comic parallel, but the failure wasn’t mine. The failure: it wasn’t mine. I looked to my right, at the sound man, who looked slightly panicked, under more pressure than me. His boss, the conference director, appeared to snatch from him a hand-held microphone and then walk towards me. We were already behind schedule because he’d privileged a previous speaker with an extra few minutes. There was no way I’d get similar slack. But it was alright. I don’t recall exactly how I felt walking to the podium—only that I felt okay. My breath was there. I felt reasonably embodied, present; the demons seemed sidelined, and I was relaxed, ready to have fun. I got this, I thought. Then I spoke of Tommy, attachment and object relations theory, including self and other representations: in short, all the stuff that had been stirring for…I want to say forever.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

 

 

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Dunkirk

 

The war film is a dying genre. I do not intend a pun, and I didn’t want to dislike Dunkirk, the latest effort to memorialize a famous World War II battle. But unfortunately, I didn’t like Dunkirk, or rather, I didn’t love Dunkirk which, given my expectations going into the theater, was tantamount to hating it.

War films have a special place in my life. In theory, this is because James Daniels, my grandfather, was a veteran of World War II, and more specifically, a veteran of the Dunkirk evacuation that rescued around 340,000 British soldiers in May 1940 and thus girded Britain’s survival through the early years of the war. You might think I’d have heard the odd tale or two from my grandfather about the brave efforts that brought him home. I’m afraid not. Granddad said little, if anything that I recall about the battle or its aftermath. Occasionally, he’d utter tongue-in-cheek comments, barely chuckling as I asked if he’d “killed any Germans”; instead replying that he was too busy running away. As I conjure the memory of his dignified medals, sitting within a framed, sepia certificate of recognition, and hanging on a wall in his home in North Wales, I don’t recall hearing of the shame supposedly anticipated by escaping soldiers, as the film suggests happened. After his passing, I learned that James’ experience must have been more horrific than I’d ever imagined. He couldn’t swim, and according to my father, retreated from gunfire into the English channel, not so much escaping as choosing how to die. James was spared because a daring sergeant grabbed him by the scruff and pulled him into a boat. James spent his later war years in places like Iceland, the Orkney islands, waiting upon further assignments, and meeting a nurse that would be my grandmother. He fought at the D-day landing in 44′. He didn’t talk much about that. Iceland, he complained, smelled of fish.

To hear what I thought were proper, exciting war stories, I had to watch movies when I was a kid. From the fifties through the seventies, the best war films featured largely British casts fronted by American stars: The Bridge On The River Kwai, with William Holden (though Alec Guinness, later Obi Wan, won a best actor oscar); The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen stealing scenes with a motorbike; and The Dirty Dozen, with Lee Marvin kicking ass and being cool and snarky. Even the obviously bad films were guilty pleasures: The Longest Day depicted the D-day landing with a technical prowess that was admirable in 1962, but despite an all-star cast, the acting scenes were embarrassingly awful, and the anecdotal tidbits between battle sequences seemed hopelessly contrived. A Bridge Too Far (1977) followed a similar formula, was similarly bad, yet was also oddly enjoyable (like The LD, BTF was based upon a Cornelius Ryan novel). And it, too, relied upon an American star—Robert Redford—to front a largely British cast and thus cameo the film to financial success.

After that, for a while anyway, the most important war flicks were all about Vietnam: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. Stars featured in the first two, not so much Platoon. In FMJ, the man behind the camera—Stanley Kubrick—was the star. In 1998, WWII made a comeback in the form of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which was nothing less than an assaultive viewing experience—the most traumatizing of all war films. That same year, Terrance Malick revived the war-time poetry of James Jones with The Thin Red Line, perhaps my favorite war film ever, and the only film amongst these to achieve a coherent story and theme with an all-star cast. By the way, I think of Schindler’s List differently: a holocaust story, not a war film in the traditional sense. The Hurt Locker is perhaps the best film from the desert war era. What it has to say about PTSD is incomparable.

The closest thing Dunkirk has to Robert Redford is a guy from a boy-band called One Direction. Otherwise, it has Kenneth Branagh, best known as Hamlet, playing a commander who spends the evacuation stuck on a pier, staring out to sea and making decisions. Then there’s Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar last year for Bridge of Spies, playing a civilian rescuing soldiers on a private boat (apparently one of many at Dunkirk). Star-power isn’t the selling point of Dunkirk. I’d imagined or hoped that it might rival Saving Private Ryan for spectacle, or maybe The Thin Red Line as an artful effort. But it matches neither standard, unfortunately. Behind-the-scenes stuff is regrettably eschewed. The true story of Churchill’s demand that boats return to collect the French is omitted, as is Hitler’s famous halt order to his troops, which allowed British, Belgian, and Dutch soldiers to collect on beaches and climb atop boats.

Instead, a series of Luftwaffe attacks that sunk ships and doused British morale are depicted prior to a triumphant finale. Meanwhile, the story follows three young soldiers who jump queues (lines), stowaway on doomed escape boats, bicker over a French interloper, but eventually make it home to Dover. The biggest hero is a pilot of a Spitfire who seems to take on the Luftwaffe all by himself while running out of fuel. His singular heroics redeem a British air force that is otherwise absent, and his surrendering glide over Dunkirk’s beaches is an eloquent tribute to the operation. These mini-plots all contain their share of suspense and thrills, and are indeed moving. But somehow, the finished product underwhelms. What I’d expected was an expansion of the experience I’d had reading Atonement, Ian McEwan’s war-time novel (later a good film, also), which features harrowing descriptions of the Dunkirk evacuation as a subplot. Watching Dunkirk, I was waiting upon a coup de grace, a war film to end them all. I was ready for a cathartic event, one that would bring me to tears as I thought of my grandfather, James.

I’m not gonna find this in movies.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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We are the dead

 

I’m about two thirds in to the black hole that is Leftovers, the cryptic, apocalyptic HBO drama that has taken my life over the last two weeks. I’m down in the well with Kevin, the psychotic protagonist, with Patti, his tormentor/imaginary friend, wondering when and how I’ll ever get out—not that I want out, necessarily. It’s complicated.

Actually, I’m glad Kevin got rid of Patti, finally. I mean, I think he got rid of her. For all I know, her death will have been another hallucination; a Twin Peaks-like spin into a netherworld, after which she will appear again, stalking him and us with her maddening presence. She reminds me of a girl who wouldn’t leave me alone when I was nine years old, and no, she wasn’t looking for her first kiss. At least we got an explanation out of Patti. Moments before getting her head blown off in a Godfather-like ruse, she pronounces to Kevin, her assassin, a rationale for the diabolic breakdown in feeling that has overcome humanity since October 14th. It concerns attachment, and love, and abandonment, she states—all themes that have dominated this mind-slogging second season.

Kevin thinks he’s in purgatory, having accepted a mission into hell to kill the demon Patti, who in this underworld dream has become a senator, having presumably ridden a wave of end-of-world fervor. Kevin’s been having a rough time lately. He’s dead, sort of, after an inferno-inducing overdose facilitated by…well, nevermind. Anyway, he is estranged from his wife—that happened before season one. He’s been dumped by Nora, his girlfriend, in season two; he’s also estranged from his son, who at this point has joined a Guilty Remnant (a cult devoted to smoking and stalking) split-off group; meanwhile, Kevin’s pissing off his teenage daughter, who thinks him unreliable, blameworthy for her own abandonment struggle. Kevin feels alone, desperately, epitomizingly alone. Patti thinks this is the new normal: October 14th, that spectacular cosmic event of 2011, in which 2% of the world’s population inexplicably vanished, has rendered love moot, by demonstrating once and for all that goodness and justice mean nothing. The seemingly random extraction of people has turned the world upside down: it has made a liar of religion, morality, even medical science. It has shown that personal responsibility, good and bad deeds, don’t matter. It has destroyed our implicit belief in a meritocratic universe.

Two thirds in, Leftovers is shaping up as a parable of depression and deadness: what happens when the event is over, the moment of choice has passed, and only the aftermath remains. Well, questions remain: does it matter if we take care of ourselves, each other? Does it matter if we smoke, for example? The Guilty Remnant hierarchy denounces violence as a means to elicit memory (the ‘We make them remember” ethos), declaring violence “weak”. But if self-care, morality, and love don’t matter, then what’s so important about strength? Is it, as Patti suggests just prior to her demise, a matter of survival in a context wherein happiness or personal growth no longer exist? Are all of these strange behaviors—the delusions, the mutism, the acting out—variations of self-defense? Season two ends in relief, with a breathless, tearful reunion between Kevin and all of the estranged. Paradise? A happy ending? Not quite, but it rebukes Patti’s decree, anyway. Some things matter. Good thing too, for Leftovers was starting to get me down, into defense. No, I won’t choose mutism or smoking.

Here’s what happened. Kevin had been through purgatory and hell. In fact, he technically went through it (them?) twice after being shot on earth after his first return. Guy couldn’t get a break. When he wakes up in that Twilight Zone hotel, recognizing the scene, knowing he was back for another ordeal, he yells “MOTHERFUCKER” into a bathroom mirror in despair. I felt for him, his frustration and hopeless. But I laughed. I laughed my ass off.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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