Marvel at the Myth: Why we Need Superheroes

Dark Knight of the Soul.

I leave the theatre.
For a moment,  I am restored. My pupils are dilated.
But In the cold of light the everyday moment, the ecstasy is shattered.
The visions shrivel and implode.   The beautiful illusion evaporates.
I am upset.

But then I remember.  He is an idea. And ideas are are In my actions. In the principles that I manifest.  It has been said that Alexander the Great believed that  we were most alone when we were with the myths.  The Romans were legislators, builders and statesmen par excellence.  The Greek were scientists, poets, philosophers.

icarusWrapped in the struggles of their own situations, the characters of the Greeks were vehicles for the subtlest of truths.  Like DNA base pairs uniting in sequence, they were so much more than the sum of their parts. They were a message to be translated.  They were a constellation of allegorical wisdom, a secret map that could allow one to navigate the stormy seas home.  Sysyphus searches for a reason. Achilles chooses glory over longevity. Icarus flies too high.

But these are archaic images, foreign to the minds of a new generation.

Enter the DC universe, and Marvel at the Myth.  Men and women woven into the world that we live in. Journalists, photographers, soldiers, scientists, professors.  But behind them, and the pomp, the struggles are the same.

And this is why films like Batman Begins and the Dark Knight are so vivid, so visceral.

We taste the guilt that drives every blow that Batman strikes.
We want to see the tears of the flesh. We long for the tears of anguish, the innocence violently ripped away.
We want to rage against the dying of the knight.

As Parker leaves Mary Jane to do what he must , we acknowledge the price that power bestows.  We understand that we must leave what we love in order to truly love it.

We breathe in the grandeur.
We can feel the weight of the chips on the table as Logan rages against the past to carve a future that won’t give way to anything less than an adamantium will.

We doubt in the whole, as Magneto does, and we secretly hope for hope, as Xavier chooses to.  We want to be believe we can, but we’ve been hurt before.

These are humans with purpose. These are men and women of action. Heroes.

Through them vicariously we can witness the physical expression of the drama of our own existences. Their destinies unfold before us in mere moments, casting a brief flash upon the paths that lie shrouded in darkness before us.

Sartre spoke of existence preceding essence. Science and engineering preserve our existence, but do little for our essence.  Like all art, essence is something we manifest, create. To deny the process is to exist, but to do little else.

The principles we uphold, the rules we struggle not to break, the chances that we choose to take, these are our myths.

Mike Deodato Jr Deviant ArtFor our heroes and us, challenges abound. We sense the importance of the mission.
Deeper still, we sense the importance of a mission, any mission.
We breathe in the intoxicating scent of ambition, and our eyes are blinded by the brilliance of their vision.

The metaphor is yours to choose.  It is there for you to create. It is bound up in every image, every sound. It is the essence that you create.

The meanings that we project upon the canvas are all internal, and yet, they reveal themselves in the ways that we conduct ourselves. They determine the battles that we choose.  Every thought, action, choice, virtue stubbornly upheld, all coalesce into grooves upon which the rails of our destiny rides.

So, what’s your story?

The Evolution of Cooking Shows, featuring Anxiety

These days, I’m not too big a fan of TV in general.  Growing up, like most self-respecting child-products of the nineties, I watched the Simpsons religiously (5 pm every weekday with new episodes Sundays at 9), and could tell you exactly when the show started to go downhill (I’m sure all the good writers died), as well as give you a first hand account of the craziness that took over the world in the summer of 1995 while we were forced to wait a whole 4 months to find out who shot Mr. Burns.

In recent years I’ve found that I just don’t have the patience for TV.  I should probably specify that by saying that I have not purposefully set aside time for the sole purpose of watching a particular show in a long time.  The commercials, combined with the fact that there is really not much that I find worthwhile to watch, have wholly converted me to the practice of watching TV series on DVD, and I’m certain that the experience is 10 times more pleasurable.

yan can cook

Martin Yan back in his glory days

Having said that, there are a couple of notable exceptions.  Living in a semi-rival city, I don’t often get to watch games featuring my team, so I usually watch the occasional ones that I can.  But the place where I easily spend my most time in TV land is the Food Network.  I don’t know what it is, but I love cooking shows.  I have since I was quite young and used to watch (fantastic) shows like The Urban Peasant and Yan Can Cook.  Back then, there wasn’t a Food Network to speak of.  These shows were running on local TV stations during daytime TV hours.

Despite the basic premise of filming someone cooking food, cooking shows have evolved somewhat.  There are still great shows that follow the basic formula – I’m a big fan of Chef At Home – but by and large, cooking shows have become one of two things: “reality” shows with a competition-based cook-off, or the standard-esque formula delivered towards a niche audience with or without an obvious twist.  Both categories are home to a great many terrible shows and also some that are worth watching.  From the former, I would recommend anything featuring Gordon Ramsey.  The man is a genius.  I’m a fan of a lot of the grill-based shows in the latter category, as well (as long as it’s not Road Grill… the horror…Matt Dunnigan, you are my worst grill-based nightmare).

By this point, you’re no doubt wondering: Dave, it’s great that you think so many fascinating thoughts about cooking shows, but why are you writing about them here, on a psychology-themed blog?

matt dunnigan and gordon ramsay

Matt Dunnigan? No. For the love of God, no. Gordon Ramsay? That's more like it.

Relax, I was getting there.  See, there’s a show that started airing on the Food Network this season that seemed from the name alone that it had just gone too far.  Deviated too far from the mean of what makes a cooking show good, into the realm of the extreme for the sake of being extreme.  I’m talking about a show called Bitchin’ Kitchen.  From what I can gather (gasp! No Wikipedia article!), the show’s humble origins were online before it was picked up by the Food Network.

Anyway, the show is hosted by Nadia G., (or ‘Nads,’ as she self-refers) a young woman with a burly New York-esque Italian (eye-talian) accent, decked out in punk rock gear and brightly coloured make-up.  The show features recipes like “one night stand breakfast,” “pissed penne,” and “get famous frittata.”  Points for originality, sure.  Hey, points for comedy while we’re at it.  Maybe even some points for trying to make cooking shows cool.  But again, something just seems wrong about it all.  Am I too much of an old-school cooking show purist?  What happened to the days of gray-haired, overweight people using a stick of butter per recipe? (you don’t count, Paula Deen… you’re too… Southern.)

bitchin kitchen

Nadia G. rocking a frying pan

Regardless, the particular episode that I watched was called “Anxiety Stricken Chicken,” which is what made me decide to write this post.  The link above is to the web episode, not the Food Network one, so there are some differences.  Read the by-line for the episode for yourself:

Anxiety is the plague of the Net Generation. In this episode Nadia G. teaches us how to cook a chicken soup that will sooth the soul, the way mom used to make it… unless mom was a crack-ho, but that’s another episode.

Crack-hos aside, the episode makes frequent pokes at anxiety and the people that suffer from it.  Nadia G. talks about having her own panic attacks as if they were a psychotic break (“hundreds of skinless creatures crawling all over the room,” which she later cites as the reason for straining the chicken skin from her soup).  There is even a reference to anxious people being nerds.  For most of the episode, Nadia makes references to being obsessed with a lump on her neck.  She lists “cloneezapam” as an ingredient in the soup (“clonazepam” aka klonopin is a widely used and quite potent benzodiazepine, a class of anti-anxiety medication). Towards the end of the episode, she opines,

For the longest time, I was convinced that my panic attacks were due to rocking too hard.  So, I cleaned up my act, and surprise, surprise: life still sucks!

I haven’t made up my mind about whether this is the kind of humour that’s hurting society’s perception of mental illness and more specifically anxiety and anxiety sufferers or if, a la the racially charged comedic stylings of Russell Peters, the ability to make fun of anxiety is actually a crucial step in raising our awareness of it.  Conquering it.  Though Peters is a a minority who makes fun of minorities, so that changes the rules a bit.  Does Nadia G. really suffer crippling panic attacks?  It’s quite possible, but we may never know.

One thing’s for certain.  Whether or not the humour is good-intentioned and whether it raises awareness or it further raises stigmatization, until we see more of a positive presence of mental illness in the media, it doesn’t really matter.

On change

A couple thousand years ago, the Greek philospher Heraclitus said that nothing endures but change.  It is, so to speak, the only constant.

These days, it’s a message that I find myself coming to face with frequently.  I suppose it has to do with the place I am at in life, at the “beginning” of a career, a real life.  It’s felt this way for a while, maybe because the end of my life as a student has seemed so near for so long.  Maybe it’s because the realities of adulthood – a terrifying concept, at best – have started to really stack up, and bills and debts became larger and more frightening, etc., etc… all the while watching others my age who decided not to spend tens of thousands of dollars on school driving new cars, buying houses, getting married, having kids.  Progressing, in some senses of the word.  Settling.

The word ‘transition’ is a bit of a tricky one.  It implies an in-between state, not at the start, not at the end.  In the middle, wherever that may be.  To be in transition is in some sense to assume that one will not always be so.  That there is a graduation, an end to the process of alteration.  We’ll come out on the other end no longer changing, but changed.

Of course, there’s really no end to the change.  Old Heraclitus was bang on, and thousands of years later the frontiers of scientific thought have chimed in agreement to the perplexing tunes of relativity and quantum mechanics.  Nothing is absolute, not even the fundamental particles of matter.

The thing is, we’re creatures of habit.  Change is a really hard thing to have to put up with, as most anyone in the process of moving will tell you.  And more often than not, at least from the perspective of counselling, it’s change rather than stagnancy that takes people from a state of being okay to a state of distress.  It takes us out of our comfort zone.  Makes us put up our radar a bit higher.  We have to pay more attention to what’s going on, and that takes resources.  In extremely unfortunate (but much too frequent) cases, like trauma, these resources are vast, and not easily reallocated to other, more adaptive things.  Major life changes like transitioning into and out of the workplace, starting or breaking up a family, etc. can also take very long periods of time to get used to.  Sometimes people just don’t.

At the same time, no change would be boring.  Knowing things will be the same day in, day out can be extremely depressing, and just as damaging as too much change.  The extreme that comes to mind is solitary confinement.

So, there’s a conundrum here.  We’re quite stretched between wanting things to stay the same and wanting things to change.  In a way, the ‘good life’ is all about finding the right balance between the two.  No one knows exactly how to get it right (and if they profess to, they’re trying to take your money), but we all know when we’ve struck that sweet spot with the right mix of stability and spontaneity, just like we know when things are way out of whack.

The best we can do is adjust as we go.  Like finding the perfect water temperature in the shower – it’s only possible once in a while, and it’s damn frustrating to get there.  Even the smallest adjustments seem to cause unreasonably magnified outcomes.  Then we think we get it right, and the great big hot water tank of life has other plans.  But, in a matter of minutes it’s over.  Time to get on with the day.

Are therapists plumbers in this metaphor?

On Nothingness

photo by Caity

Sleep is just one of “those” things.

It’s tied in to so much of our well being, that to notice how important it is to our daily functioning, all one has to do is go for a brief period where it’s hard to come by.

Besides studying counselling psychology, one of the things I do on the side is work as a casual/on-call staff in community homes around Vancouver for people diagnosed with severe mental illness.  The homes are staffed 24 hours a day, and I seem to be among the small percentage of casuals who don’t mind working overnight, so I often work the graveyard shift.  This is all well and good, and I really don’t mind working nights here and there, but sometimes the ramifications on my sleeping patterns can reverberate all the way through the week (i.e. if I could right now, I would be sleeping such that my 7 hour class starting tomorrow morning would be more bearable, but it’s just not meant to be).

Anyway, I was on a night shift on the weekend and I found myself looking up into the sky at about 3:30, 4:00 am.  It was muggy outside and there was a distinct purplish pink hue to the normally gray overcast clouds.  And there was a moment of beautiful urban silence.  Like time slowed and the rest of the world had truly gone to sleep, leaving me alone standing in a backyard in the middle of a vast sprawling city.  I’m not sure how long it was before the sound of traffic shattered my reverie.  It was probably only moments.

The thing that I kept thinking about as I stood there looking up into the empty purple sky was nothingness.  How immensely vast the atmosphere is, the planet is, solar system, universe.  How there is no way to conceptualize this kind of space and emptiness!  How truly surprising, inspiring, and revolting the things that we’ve accomplished in spite of this crushing unknown.  The vanity of our attempts to reduce or explain it down to a level that is supposedly comforting and relatable… the mythologies, the religions…

But the irony of my experience that night is that the most salient feeling I had was one of comfort.  I’ve felt this before when looking up into the sky on clear nights, contemplating the stars and wondering, after their light has travelled for millions of light years, whether they even still exist.  Knowing that in this perspective, I am less than a speck in space and time.  I could understand how this might be an overwhelming feeling of being lost, without meaning, for some.  But for me it’s always been a comforting experience.  A spiritual experience.  To know that there really is nothingness all around.  To embrace it, without pushing it away or belittling it.  To be lost, and to not care.

It makes what we have in our meagre lives seem a lot more… human.

Now, if only I could get some sleep.