A look at relationships, personal growth, & living/working in the 21st century.

Carnage

A Movie Review:
Carnage” – A Modern-day “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
I often examine relationships, so I thought I’d share some comments on last year’s Jodie Foster film “Carnage.” The setting of Carnage (2011), directed by Roman Polanski, is a planned meeting between a pair of upper middle-class, Manhattan parents after one 11-year-old boy has knocked out the tooth of a same-aged peer. The polite conversation is initially focused on finding a resolution to the children’s conflict. However, the discussion rapidly broadens to larger societal topics of violent behavior and whether anyone is ever truly concerned outside their own selfish needs. Interestingly, Carnage seems reminiscent of Mike Nichols’ 1966 film, the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor – George Segal/Sandy Dennis couples’ bout, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” The Burton-Taylor film is a similarly dark, comic drama where two couples, with their own marital issues, verbally spar while trying to initially remain civil. The strife is both inter-couple and intra-couple. Further, for both films alcohol plays a role in loosening up the players’ inhibitions, whose sober levels of restraint differ vastly.

For Carnage, the ever-so-civilized arbitration over espresso and tulips soon descends from gauged remarks to uncensored rebuffs as the gloves come off to address more base needs.

Carnage’s male protagonists are John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz. Though initially seeming to have little in common, the men learn they are birds of a feather in their tightly held views of gender roles and the ways such perspectives dictate marriage and child-rearing. They both want wives able to hold their own in a social setting. This is apparent in how quickly these men selfishly engage in male bonding and all but ignore their wives during the verbal bouts of the evening. Concurrently, they want spouses who handle domestic duties (i.e., raising children, keeping a home), while deferring to them when differences of opinion arise over those issues. Waltz is charming mix of modern civility and primal hedonism. Initially, he lobbies for a fair depiction of his son. However, he soon transforms to almost celebrate the boy’s childish behavior. Simultaneously, he seeks to satisfiy his appitites for whiskey and cigars, thanks to the hospitality of his host. His conflicts are apparent in an especially telling interchange where, when faced with Foster’s labeling of his son as a maniac, protested by Winslet, he instead concurs.

Foster and Winslet want to be equal partners in marital relationships, while hanging onto a desire to have a conveniently available white knight ready to rescue them at a moment’s notice – a view similar to that held by Taylor and Dennis. Who among us cannot relate to wanting the best of both worlds? At one point, Foster is reduced to tears of frustration, like her forerunner Sandy Dennis. However, unlike Dennis, Foster’s tears seem more an angry, tension-reliever than a desparate plea for help. Foster’s tears fail to compare to Winslet’s attention-seeking efforts. Although Winslet “tossed (her) cookies,” as aptly described by Reilly, she quickly rebounds for more verbal fist-to-cuffs.

Both movies are a delight if you enjoy witty, barbed interchange which varies in its level of appropriateness and unapologetically approaches vulgarity.

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This morning on public transit a situation occurred which made me think about human decency, altruism, and my own thought processes. In an otherwise quiet train car, a woman sitting across the aisle from me began to loudly ask passengers for help getting something to eat. I’m accustomed to such public requests-given I live in Chicago-although I would guess most pleas I hear tend to be for money, rather than food. The woman’s desparation certainly sounded sincere, unlike many able-appearing individuals who give the impression that they maintain a certain emotional distance as they beg in public. The crowd of people initially kept looking forward or down and did not respond. After the woman had repeatedly asked for assistance getting food, a well-dressed, 20-something-year-old man, sitting immediately in front of me, unzipped his courier bag, withdrew a banana, and handed it to the apparently hungry woman. The man made this gesture with almost no personal interaction other than the critical act of helping someone in need. He said nothing, and apparently never even made eye contact with the person he helped. The woman quickly started eating the banana and then paused to offer a brief, yet loud thanks to the man. The man continued staring forward and did not respond again.
Observing what occurred on the train really made me think. I must say, this situation even provoked some guilt in me. I very rarely give any money to those begging in the streets. I believe in philanthropy and I once participated in a walk to raise awareness (and money) for the mentally ill. The woman on the train likely had her own mental health issues, based on her overall presentation. Although I have worked with the mentally ill, when hearing the woman’s pleas, I found myself avoiding any consideration of trying to be helpful. I even had two packages of snacks in my bag (cheese/crackers), as well as my actual lunch, but I kept thinking selfishly that I couldn’t afford to be taking care of anyone else’s needs.
What does it take to move someone from the place of being an uninvolved observer to stepping up and acting as a good samaritan? I remember my Grandmother reading me the bible story of the good samaritan, and I recall her example of donating money, and her time, to what she deemed worthy causes. She was never wealthy but still gave what she felt she could. So, why did I remain uninvolved given what I was taught? I had extra snacks with me and could easily have afforded to give away a $.33 package of snack crackers, leaving myself another package to spare (and my lunch). Further, this woman was asking for food, not money. Thus, her ability to use my gift inappropriately was unlikely. This issue of asking for food, as opposed to money, is one I often tell myself makes such pleas for assistance more palatable and worthy of sympathy. Hopefully, after this experience I will move toward making a behavior change and consider giving of myself appropriately. After all, at the end of the day, if I had given up some of my crackers, it would not have put any real hardship on me. When I layed down for the night, I still had a roof over my head and food in my kitchen. Further, I still had some unpaid bills which no snack crackers could have paid. Wish me luck in changing into a more giving person. Tomorrow’s another day and I’ll be back on that same train. Maybe those random acts of kindness really are worth aspiring to. We can make a difference-one person at a time. What do you think?

Or, Can You Be a Real Man Without a Car?
To begin – some background.
I’m not from here (Chicago, my home of 20+ years). I grew up in rural, Midwest America where the closest thing to local public transit was when someone gave you a ride. I learned to drive a car at age 13. Don’t worry, no highway/street driving. A friend of the family let me drive their Pontiac sedan in an empty soybean field. For the younger readers, Pontiac was a GM-derivative. I’ve loved driving ever since that day when I pretended the bean field was the Autobahn (at 5-10 miles per hour of course). Before I continue, it’s very important that you understand the following gender-related driving mandate. Although driving was always done by both males and females in my family, one very strict rule was never broken – an adult male cannot be the passenger of an adult female (unless it’s his mom). The only exception I witnessed was when my mother drove my father home after he had been briefly hospitalized (and couldn’t drive). I know this sounds antiquated, but this was rural America in the 1960’s and 1970’s. When a teenage male reaches legal driving age, he HAS to have his own vehicle. If you grew up in a certain SES, a car/pickup truck was given to you. If your family couldn’t afford to buy you a new car, your parents would give you their car and take the opportunity to get themselves a new one. Otherwise, you were expected to buy yourself a used car with income from part-time jobs and/or loans from family members. So as you now know, the culture of my upbringing closely tied a young man’s identity to his vehicle. In other words, first and foremost, you were your ride.
The Option of Public Transit.
I first rode a bus in my mid-20’s. In my 30’s, I first considered the possibility that one could be an independent, self-sufficient adult without owning a car. I know it sounds odd, but, coming from a rural farming community, being a grown man ALWAYS includes car ownership. However, change is one of the few constants in life. I recall my shock when I first heard a male acquaintance, an architect no less, say he had never owned a car. Having gotten my first car at 16, a gift from my parents (used ’73 Ford Capri), I couldn’t conceptualize the reality that a male in this society could survive puberty sans automobile. But, we do live and learn.
The Parking Challenge.
Car possession does have its cons-parking, for example. Parking in the city is always a chore unless you are willing and able to pay for a garage spot. Outdoor reserved parking spots in desirable areas of Chicago can easily sell for five figures (more expensive than some homes in today’s economy). I have always lived in congested areas. I remember several times having double-parked and ran inside my apartment to quickly use the restroom so that I could go back to the car to continue trolling for a relatively legal parking spot. I lived near Wrigley Field at that time. It’s true I could have found a spot more quickly if I had been willing to park further from home. But that would have broken the cardinal rule of parking-never park more than four blocks from home. Don’t ask me who came up with this rule, given it’s a car-related rule, it’s nearly gospel to me. I eventually, and painfully overcame this dictate and went to the other extreme-I would park anywhere, at any distance from home to pursue my new goal of avoiding the parking challenge. As you see, a lot of time and effort have always surrounded the whole ‘car thing’ for me. So, to conclude, for this man, car ownership has always been equated with independence. However, I now must raise the following question, does a truly self-sufficient adult hurry out the door in the morning, on the way to work, only to then stand and wait for the bus/train? Yes, I wholeheartedly submit. Yes. Besides, now we have the capability of using our smart phones to track the location of every form of transit. So, the ‘power’ and control is back in the palm of your hand. Anyway, that’s what I tell myself as I pace back and forth waiting for transit which the “train tracker” assured me would be there 10 MINUTES AGO.

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After taking my dog to the dog beach I had a revelation – dogs have all the answers. Dogs, great companions and clearly the most popular of the domesticated animals, are often seen in a somewhat negative light. In the English language there are numerous common idioms which cast aspursions about ‘man’s best friend.’ For example, consider the following sayings, 1) to ‘dog it,’ means to shirk responsibility; 2) to ‘go to the dogs,’ means to deteriorate; 3) to ‘lead a dog’s life,’ means to have an unhappy or harassed existence; or 4) to ‘put on the dog,’ means to assume an attitude of wealth or importance.” However, despite what are often seen as negative aspects of their behavior, dogs generally treat each other fairly and decently. First, dogs know how to work things out and get along. Little dogs get to sniff big dogs and vice versa. Among dog social circles, even the unattractive and ill-behaved get a shot at ‘running with the big dogs.’ Dogs are fair and quite equitable with each other. If a small dog gets too aggressive with a larger dog, the bigger dog likely growls and/or snaps at the smaller one to reprimand it or put it in its place. The smaller dog then responds respectfully by ceasing its inappropriate behavior. This is sometimes taken to the point of a sort of restitution when the smaller dog lies in a submissive position to show its remorse and acknowledge its guilt/misbehavior. There’s usually no need for one dog to attempt to cause permanent harm to another or destroy another’s reputation with other dogs. There’s no arguing over ‘super-packs’ as you’re either in a pack or you’re not. No one cares about such things since you’re just a dog either way. Eventually, in the equitable world of dogs, there’s a chance for every dog to ‘have his day.’ And, finally, at the dog park, no one gossips or mud-slings about another dog. Everyone is accepted and treated based on their merits, not the color of their skin (coat), and there’s no barking about any other dogs’ skeletons(bones)-in-the-closet. In conclusion, dogs are quite wise because all dogs know that, at the end of the day, EVERY dog licks itself. Talk about the great equalizer. Are you, like me, already tired of the endless political squabbling being broadcast all over the news, which will continue into the month of November? If it brings you any solace, just remember, we’re making the whole thing harder than it has to be. Dogs really do have all the answers and know how to get along with each other, how to resolve conflicts. Thanks for reading my rant, and, please share your thoughts.

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The holiday season is here again. It’s supposed to be a joyous time, but for many people, especially those recovering from an addiction, that’s often not the case.

Let’s start with the expectations we harbor.
First – Society’s Expectations. We’re expected to be joyfully anticipating the holidays and all the traditions – getting together with loved ones, giving and receiving gifts, etc. So, the pressure’s on to have a good time celebrating with family. However, when a family member is caught up in an addiction, holiday time can seem more a reminder of strained, increasingly distant relationships than a time of joyous celebration. Arrival of the holiday season does nothing to ease the pain of addiction. Nor does holiday time lessen the tension and emotional pain of unresolved family strife. The problems present throughout the year have not resolved with the changing calendar. In fact, problems sometimes feel worsened when facing a major holiday.

Second – Family Expectations. What about the expectations family members put on the addicted person? Family members often expect the addict/alcoholic to happily be present at their holiday table. But facing one’s sometimes judgmental family members is not easy. Family members, even those who truly have the best intentions, are often unsympathetic of the addict/alcoholic’s struggles to soberly cope with emotional pain. Breaking the pattern of using alcohol and/or drugs to ease one’s emotions is a truly monumental task. Such a challenge cannot be easily comprehended without having had personal experience doing so.

Third – Our Personal Expectations. We all have hope that our lives will continue to progress and improve, even the alcoholic/addict. We try to look forward to the holidays. We try to regain that feeling of holiday innocence and joy we remember from long ago holiday celebrations. Though those were likely less than perfect times, our memories often work to leave out the painful moments and fill in those blanks with, at worst, neutral feelings, and, at best, joyous emotions. All of this leaves us, emotionally anyway, seeking a simple, happy holiday time. Intellectually, the more objective parts of our brain tell us that the simple joy we seek will never be found. The mistakes of the past -the regrets- cannot be erased, and the resulting pain from grieving the loss of what-will-never-be can seem intolerable.

So, all of this having been said, what can someone in recovery do to survive the holidays without relapsing? One can choose to have hope and look forward rather than remaining stuck in the pain of the past. The alcoholic/addict may not like where they are today, with regard to their personal life, career, finances, etc., and that person may struggle with related self-pity. However, that same alcoholic/addict may readily accept that today they are better off than where they were before starting their recovery. Thankfully, those small steps forward do add up to huge changes and real progress toward lasting sobriety.

This is the Halloween season – a time when we claim it’s fun to be afraid. So, let’s take a look at some things which can strike fear in the heart of any man, or woman. Let’s take a brave look at anxiety. More specifically, let’s look at fear of the unknown.

Winnie-the-Pooh’s best friend, Christopher Robin, said, “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” From Christopher’s perspective, the view of a child, even a short-in-stature, rotund, honey-seeking bear can change the world. Christopher and Winnie both sometimes doubted their own abilities to problem-solve and cope, but they firmly believed in each other’s strength and tenacity. So why can’t we all have such ‘fear-busting’ faith in ourselves? After all, when you’re feeling scared and anxious, as all of us do at times, ‘Who ya gonna call?”

Anxiety is one of those experiences we share with so many other warm-blooded creatures on this earth. We may think we have exclusive rights on anxiety, but that’s only our arrogance talking. I’d venture to say that every warm-blooded creature can relate to their own ‘blood running cold’ out of intense fear. So why can’t we cope with it in a healthier manner like so many of our fellow members of the animal kingdom? We refer to some animals as being “domesticated,” and we bring them into our lives as companions. Because, like us, such animals are social, tribal beings who cope best with their lives when they share their existence with others. From cats and dogs, to those creatures we label as ‘wild,’ the lions, tigers, and bears – many creatures improve their lives by seeking a way to share their world. We know joining forces makes reproduction possible, survival of the species and all, and it helps keep those mouths fed. But, also consider that part of the reason why animals band together, forming purposeful relationships, is that it helps them deal with their experience of anxiety. If you’ve ever left a dog alone in the house for a few hours and returned to find your pet busily re-potting your houseplants, you may have asked yourself ‘Why, oh why?’ The answer – ANXIETY.

Anxiety is to a very large extent just fear. Often, the worst anxiety one experiences is not fear of something specific, something identifiable, but a fear of the unknown. As any horror movie illustrates, fear of the unknown is always much more frightening than fear of the known. When I was a child, my fear of the bogeyman hiding under my bed was much scarier than any movie monster. When you’re facing Dracula or Frankenstein, you know that what you see is what you’ll get. So, logic may suggest just destroy those ‘Draculas’ and ‘Frankensteins’ plaguing you. But, if your plan is to rid your life of anything and everything that causes you anxiety – you’re doomed to fail. Because, with an irrational fear of the unknown, which for many of us is our preferred brand of anxiety, the terrible possibilities are endless. There is an up-side to this discussion. Although we cannot control much, if anything, in our lives, we can control how we react, how we respond to our anxious feelings. Managing anxiety is like managing anger – you learn ways to live with it, not how to eliminate it.
So though it may seem like you’re being followed as you take a short-cut down that poorly-lit alley, it’s probably just your anxiety – or is it?

More on anxiety to come. Have a fun and safe Halloween.

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I think I need help being a better puppy parent.  We have a 9-month-old puppy in the family, Rex, a male Beabull (1/2 Beagle & 1/2 English Bulldog).  He really doesn’t ask all that much of me.  However, lately he’s let me know many times that I’m falling short when it comes to giving him the attention, love, holding, etc., that he wants.  Rex lets me know I’m not attending to him properly in multiple ways.  There’s the ever-so-subtle, very sharp, puppy bark.  The barks may be few, such as when something happens to capture his attention, or the barks can be many – unending until I give in, stop whatever I’m doing, and let this almost 40-pound dog pretend he’s a lap dog.  Then there’s the lengthy whine, often high-pitched, piercing, and one which makes you wonder if your neighbors are now certain you have begun the nightly beating of your dog (kidding, of course).  Who would have thought so much drama could be communicated by a whine.  If these methods don’t work, Rex gets really creative and finds new and better ways to be annoying, destructive, or just amazingly cute, all of which are done to capture your attention.

I’ve finally accepted that in my relationship with Rex, he’s the ‘giver,’ and I’m the ‘taker.’  Oh sure, I make sure he’s fed, bathed, walked, etc.  But he’s the one always offering unending affection and unconditional acceptance.  My moody self can be flighty as the wind – loving one minute and an iceberg the next.  Now don’t get me wrong, neither of us in this relationship is without his faults. So, lets look at Rex’s shortcomings.  He has that Beagle stubbornness, which can really try your patience.  When he picks up a scent he likes, his ears turn off, his eyes focus only on whatever has captured his interest, and I become non-existent and irrelevant.  What about dogs being pack animals, what about my being the ‘alpha dog’?  All of that goes out the window when Rex smells something interesting. Apparently, I’m just the ‘means to an end’ for Rex.

Rex has that cute Beagle face, you know, the big brown eyes, floppy rounded ears, and the ever-sniffing nose.  Everywhere we go, people respond to him and seem to immediately adore him.  Women always smile, often stopping whatever they are doing to pet him.  I’ve seen women walking, even romantically strolling, with the one they love, pause and react to Rex’s presence.  I’ve seen women stop their conversation, release the hand they are holding, to speak to me and say, “What a cute dog.  Can I pet him?”  I wish I had half of my dog’s magnetism – animal or whatever its origin.  I often see men doing the same, commenting on how cute my dog is, saying it in their most masculine tone of voice.  I often don’t get it – Rex is just a puppy.  I grew up in a household with pets (cats & dog), and when I was a pre-teen, we had various creatures in (guinea pigs) or outside (a rabbit) the house.  I know the attraction of household pets.  However, what is it that happens when you walk a puppy down the street causing others to go out of their way to get some ‘puppy time’? I just took Rex out for his last walk of the night. I planned to get him, do the deed, and get back in – you know, a clandestine manuever. Wouldn’t you know it, we were mobbed by dogs and people in the elevator. When we got outside, other dog owners, not content to just enjoy the companionship with their own dogs, began with the questions, “What a cute dog – What is he, a boy or a girl, What’s his name, Isn’t that darling,” etc., ad nauseam.  I guess you’d have to have an extraordinarily ugly or viciously mean dog to be able to take a walk and be left alone.  Don’t get me wrong, many times I get a real kick out of the attention, but, at other times, I just wanna be left alone.  Do I sound jealous of all the instant love and affection Rex gets?  You bet your dog biscuit I am.  Anyway, Rex is worth his weight in gold.  And if you have a dog, or even a cat, I’d bet you’d say the same about your pal.