Saturday, June 16, 2018

Ecological Specter

 Deer #1, a drawing on yupo paper © Kathy Hanson
www.kphansonart.com

Kathy’s Deer

This same phantom visits both of us,
though we live in different towns.

I am haunted by her appearance,
her plaintive and anguished look.

To me, she is a living guilt trip 
for our rape of Mother Earth:

Like the Virgin Mary coming back
to remind us what we did to Jesus.



Monday, June 11, 2018

Surging suicide rates are more than a mental health issue

Published in the Concord Monitor 6/17/18
Worlds in Collision
Mural under construction in the Mission District, SF
CC Jean Stimmell: 12/19/16
While I’m a practicing psychotherapist, my hero is the late, great sociologist, C. Wright Mills who made a critical distinction between private troubles – which affect a single person – and public issues – which affect a group of people.

Mills would turn over in his grave if he saw the new Centers for Disease Control report[i], which concludes that the recent surge in suicides in our country is attributable only to an assortment of personal problems, listing things such as strained relationships; life stressors, often involving work or finances; substance use problems; physical health conditions; recent or impending crises…

Reuters confirms the individual emphasis of this report, noting the “spike in suicide rates in the United States has cast fresh light on the need for more effective treatments for major depression…”[ii]

Of course, assuming that everything revolves around the individual is an American tradition: we aspire to be the rugged individual who can triumph over anything, if only we work hard enough and long enough. Or else, be like John Wayne and take out the bad hombre who is holding you down in a blaze of gunfire.  

Our default position is that failure is an individual problem, a psychological maladjustment. Suicide is an admission of that failure. Despite this American obsession, sociologists have long known that suicide is not simply a psychological occurrence but a societal one. 

Suicide rates have long been shown to vary depending on the status of society: rapid changes to the social, economic, or political structures of society cause suicide rates to soar.

The 19th-century sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the term “anomie” to describe this phenomenon. It was his thesis that anomie occurred when the values and norms from one era were no longer valid, but new ones have not yet evolved to take their place.

That’s not to say that our mental health system isn’t in crisis, because it is! It needs to be re-imagined with greatly expanded funding to make help readily available to each and every one of us when we need it. That would certainly help. 

But suicide rates would still be high because the root cause of our surging suicide rate is anomie, a societal issue.  Most observers agree that anomie has been increasing since the sixties and has accelerated markedly under the unethical and normless Trump administration.

Anti-depressant medication won’t fix the problem.

From a sociological perspective, suicide rates will not significantly decrease until people can find meaning in their lives again; this will only happen when we can embrace a new societal vision that is morally and spiritually up-lifting, while restoring, in actual practice, the American Dream that everyone has an equal chance of succeeding.

Right now we in the situation Durkheim described where the values and norms from the old era are no longer valid, but the new ones have yet taken firm root.

We are now caught between eras, divided into separate camps. Here is my impression of the two camps and what I think should happen. Beware: I have a definite viewpoint.

The old camp wants to return to the way things were: where white men were privileged and we could dominate the whole world by force; where as a country we spend more of our discretionary money on the military than on our people; where we can spend a trillion dollars modernizing our nuclear weapons and extract fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow.

It goes without saying that for this camp – with its head stuck like an ostrich, deep in oil drenched-sand – climate change is a hoax and nuclear war is winnable.

In the new camp, we have folks with a fresh vision of our country becoming a diverse, multicultural society without racial or gender bias where we progressively reduce nuclear stockpiles by treaty and guarantee each citizen a livable wage, good health care, and a dignified retirement.

Understanding that the imminent threat of climate change is – in Jimmy Carter’s words, “the moral equivalent of war” – we will mobilize accordingly in a concerted, national push toward a sustainable economy by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

By taking these positive, unifying steps, while empowering each and every one of us to be that best that we can be, will bring a sense of meaning back into our lives and a true sense of patriotism, working together for a cause bigger than ourselves, not only for us but for our children and grandchildren.

These are the structural questions we should be talking about in deciding which vision will best carry us into the future.

Either that or we can continue to re-arrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic by continuing to claim that our societal problems, like surging suicide rates, are only a result of individual troubles and psychological maladjustment.
xxx


[i]https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0607-suicide-prevention.html
[ii][ii]https://www.yahoo.com/news/rise-u-suicides-highlights-depression-drugs-184704400--finance.html

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

We will not capitulate

A version of this piece published 6/6/18 in the Concord Monitor
One of Ionesco’s rhinos loose on the streets of Concord NH
Photoshop Collage     CC Jean Stimmell Ionesco 

We human beings are such pieces of work. 

Looking back on my life, I can say that I have developed an affinity for almost everyone that I have taken the time to get to know, regardless of their religion, race, ideology, political party, position in society.  I think most of us, as individuals, can say the same thing. 

The trouble comes when we get together in groups.

It is a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of their social group and are quick to criticize those that don’t fit their group criteria. Folks who share our particular qualities become “in-group;” those that don’t become “out-group.”

When things are going well in society and the citizens feel prosperous, we feel like we live under a big tent and tend to be more tolerant. However, when folks feel anxious and threatened as income inequality rises –like in the US and Europe over the last 30 years – the big tent shrinks and we feel more threatened by people who are different:  folks of other races, backgrounds, religions…whoever doesn’t fit in with how we define our in-group.

For millennia, these divisions have been fanned into sectarian flames by would-be authoritarian rulers, seeking to divide in order to conquer.  Today, this process is further enabled by social media outlets, allowing us to effortlessly hang out with only with those that agree with us, to the exclusion of everyone else.

Recently, we have found that this state of affairs is worse than we thought: the social media groups we love so much have been infiltrated by various nefarious organizations (and governments) to discredit groups they don’t like by propagating vile slurs and malignant lies.

The end result is that we are being winnowed effortlessly and often without our conscious knowledge into ever more claustrophobic corals, in the same manner Temple Grandin uses ever narrowing fences and curved single file chutes to herd cattle where she wants them to go, often to slaughter.

Whether the driving force in this disturbing trend is rising income inequality, social media, or fake news, there can be no doubt that totalitarianism is playing an increasingly leading role, both here and around the world. 

Seventy-one countries – more than a third of the world’s total  – saw declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017.  At the end of the Cold War, Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, thought totalitarianism had finally been vanquished but “today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened.”[A]

It may seem strange that there has been no political price to pay for this surge of authoritarian measures.  As Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations has noted: “No one of statue is shaming, sanctioning, or standing up to illiberal behavior and political repression.”[B]

His observations, however, would not sound strange to Hannah Arendt, who wrote the definitive book on totalitarianism, back in1973:

“Totalitarian … leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that … one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism. Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”[C]

Does Arendt’s definition of a totalitarian leader sound like anyone we know?

All of this reminds me of Rhinoceros[D], a well-known play right after WWII, written by Eugene Ionesco, founder of the Theatre of the Absurd. It is best described as a political parable, portraying the struggle of an individual to maintain his integrity and identity in a group-think situation, resembling the rise of Nazism in Germany.

The play takes place in a small town in France. The characters, after seeing a rhinoceros charge through their peaceful streets, start falling ill and turning into rhinos. In short order, turning into a rhino becomes the new norm, which the townspeople justify as necessary in order to “move on with the times.”

Soon, Berenger, a mild-mannered man of some character, finds himself the last human in what is now a rhinoceros herd. Looking into the mirror, he questions what is happening, “After all, man is not as bad as all that, is he?

Although he wavers many times, coming close to joining the rhinos, and despite many personal weaknesses, he comes through in the end.

“I am not capitulating.”

These words by Berenger close the play and transform his character from being indifferent and alienated to committed and human.

In these troubling times when, once again, rhinos are stampeding through our streets, we must do the same.
xxx



[A]https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-rise-of-the-worlds-new-emperors-with-americas-help
[B]ibid
[D]Ionesco, Eugene. Rhinoceros and Other Plays: Includes: The Leader; The Future Is in Eggs; It Takes All Kinds to Make a World (Evergreen Original, E-259) (p. 15). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition

Friday, June 1, 2018

A Mermaid's Comb

Salisbury State Park Reservation: 4/13/18
CC Jean Stimmell
Ancient and rusty
a mermaid’s comb
long abandoned now
as mermaids became extinct
like most of our natural treasures
all of them replaced by video games

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Yoked Together

Newburyport MA: 4/23/18
CC Jean Stimmell
Yoke is an ancient Proto-Indo-European word meaning to join or unite.

This yoke once hung around the necks of two oxen, joining them as one for work.

Now it is hung over this forlorn, old door like an  optometrist’s advertisement.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

She-Who-Watches

She-Who-Watches
CC Jean Stimmell
When I was in Oregon a few years back, I took a photograph of She-Who-Watches. She is an ancient Native American pictograph-petroglyph, revered throughout the Pacific Northwest. For her people, she was the resident guardian of the Columbia River basin. She cast a spell over me: Her eyes not only follow you everywhere, they pierce your soul.

I had a similar experience visiting good friends in a tiny town called Kokadjo, lost in the wilderness of northern Maine. It is near a pristine pond whose original Indian name is Kokadjeweemgwasebem, which translates to kettle mountain pond.

Hiking near the pond, which is really a magical lake 7 miles long, we came across another haunting face, another Native American guardian: I call her She-Who-Watches-Over-Kokadjeweemgwasebem

Click on the image to make it larger. Take a good look and you will agree: we stumbled upon a goddess.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Pink Spray and Purple Haze

Published in the Concord Monitor 5/27/18
1968: The Jimi Hendrix Experience
public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Buffeted in a  tsunami of a dream, I found myself back in the 1960s last week: the entirety of my experiences from those wild years coalesced into a single, jangled wave of hedonistic energy, radical exuberance, and existential angst, trying to balance the hope for the coming of the Age of Aquarius against the fear of the apocalypse.

The dream culminates in stark words blazing like neon lights in front of my eyes: pink spray and purple haze.  They sound like the names of paint colors at Home Depot, but they trigger images, much deeper and darker. 

Pink spray is the traumatic image, one of my former patients is still haunted by, of killing a Vietcong during a firefight in a cloud of pink spray as his bullet pierced the neck of his foe: A traumatic image, I guess, now branded in my brain, too.

Purple haze, on the other hand for me, is synonymous with Jimi Hendrix’s iconic psychedelic rock song, of the same name, with its insistent, driving guitar riffs. Purple Haze encapsulates the 1960s for me: The raw energy, the agony and the ecstasy, comrades in arms marching into the breach in both protest and war.

Like a cattle prod, these two images shocked me wide awake. Sitting up in bed I struggled to make sense of my dream, particularly how these two disparate images were connected.

I have always had a strong affinity for Purple Haze as a sixties person and a Vietnam veteran. Paola Sarappa has noted that many vets feel this way: “The rhythms, raw energy, and screaming guitars of rock music perfectly reflected the chaos and confusion of the jungle warfare and firefight battles.”⁠1

There are other connotations; for example, because Hendrix was in the army and trained to be a paratrooper, many vets assume that purple haze refers to the purple smoke used to mark landing zones.

I also wondered if there is a common thread between the mystical aspect of the 1960s psychedelic music and death: during a mystical experience, time slows down to a hyper-focus on the here-and-now, in the same manner as when facing imminent death during battle.

My dream images of purple haze and pink spray draw me ever further downward. After more research, I discovered, Purple Haze, was based on a dream, like this essay.

When he once was asked how he wrote songs, Hendrix said,"I dream a lot and I put my dreams down as songs. I wrote one called…'The Purple Haze,' which was about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea."⁠2

Hendrix always expressed regret that could never put into words, the feeling content of his song. “You know that song we had named “Purple Haze”? [It] had about a thousand, thousand words” if he only had the capability of writing them all down… “It was about going through, though this land. this mythical [place]”⁠3

His songs vibrated with the liberating energy of the posters plastered all about Paris in 1968: “Be realistic – demand the impossible. It is forbidden to forbid.”⁠4

My dream, like his, was about experiencing the Sixties as an odyssey through that mythical land. It expresses the ethos of the sixties, both the highs and lows. 

And that feeling still lives inside me, as visceral now as the first time around. I feel it alive and kicking in my gut, but, like Hendrix, I have no words to articulate further.

I can’t help thinking: is this the past or the present I am summoning up?

Once again, our country is divided between the promise of a diverse, equitable, sustainable future and the specter of a rearguard minority, rooted in the past, promoting fear and hate; once again, soldiers are dying in an endless war; once again we have been highjacked by a devious and demented president.

Am I in a dream or a living nightmare.

xxx


1 https://paolasarappa.wordpress.com/2011/08/18/the-vietnam-conflict-the-rock-‘n’-roll-war/
2 2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purple_Haze
3 2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purple_Haze

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Poseidon's Graffiti

Ocean's Salt Stain on Concrete
CC Jean Stimmell
Poseidon's graffiti accurate depiction
  of our fundamental bozo nature

A rare sighting at the beach

Fort Foster, Kittery Maine
CC Jean Stimmell
In a rare sighting at the beach

I spotted Mother Nature
wearing a sandy dress
and blue clam brooch.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Pittsfield and the Culture Wars

Published in the Concord Monitor, 4/1/18
Cosmopolitan Class Washes Pittsfield Downstream
photo illustration © Jean Stimmell
Robert Fried recently wrote an important piece in the Concord Monitor entitled Sympathy for Populists.  His thesis was that we must learn to “care as much about the welfare of our populist-leaning fellow citizens as we do for the cosmopolitan elite.”

 As a left-leaning populist in the mold of Bernie Sanders, I wholeheartedly agree. Although I must admit, I have difficulty having sympathy for the cosmopolitan class. 

The optics are bad.  Under the influence of Obama, Pelosi, and Hillary, the democratic party, in many people’s eyes, has morphed into the party of the privileged elite who no longer care about working class Americans.

Trump used this elite perception to effectively hammer the democrats, helping him to win the election. Unfortunately, there is more than a little truth to his claim. 

Although Hillary was quoted out of context about all Trump voters being “deplorables,” her comment still smacks of elitism, along with massive tone deafness. She has a history of doing this.

Although it wasn’t widely reported by the press, she recently insulted red America again, addressing an International conference in Mumbai India. 

“If you look at the map of the United States, there is all that red in the middle, places where Trump won,” she said. “What that map doesn’t show you is that I won the places that won two thirds of America’s Gross Domestic product. I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.” 

How insulting must this be to red voters! And shaming. She’s implying that those that didn’t vote for her are hidebound, bumps on a log, without the gumption to succeed.

In a similar manner, I see a parallel scenario playing out in N.H. The cosmopolitan elite, hailing from places like Hopkinton and Bow, often sneer at those who happen to live in red places like Pittsfield or Franklin.

Sometimes the comments are quite overt: I was recently talking to a smart, well-educated, normally non-judgmental person who called Pittsfield the “armpit of N.H.”

Because I went to Pittsfield High School, I feel the need to defend her honor, and hopefully, in the process, educate those on the other side of the divide.

The rust belt states were once the manufacturing engine of our country, prosperous and forward-looking until shifts in the economy and trade policies caused big business to abandon the Midwest for places around the world with lower labor costs.

The same thing happened in N.H. 

In the 19th century, Pittsfield was considered “the gem of the Suncook Valley.” In 1906 it was described in Lippincott’s New Gazetteer as a banking post-village and summer resort on the Boston and Maine railroad line, manufacturing cotton goods, boots, and shoes.

After WWII, manufacturing started to move south and then overseas, seeking lower costs. As the tax base continued to diminish, property taxes rose precipitously. For decades now, people have avoided moving into Pittsfield because of exorbitant property taxes combined with what some see as poor schools based on the fact that Pittsfield is unable to fund its school system at the same level as surrounding towns.

Tax and trade policies have pushed Pittsfield, like the Midwest, into a decades-long downward spiral. Fighting against external forces beyond their control, red state populists feel humiliated and shamed by thoughtless comments by liberals like Hillary; the implication is that they are unworthy, somehow complicit in their own decline.

But while the rust belt states have faced decades of hard times, as have N.H. towns like Pittsfield, they have not become victims or given up.

Pittsfield is a good example: her citizens have been magnificent in their resilience, school innovation, and community spirit. Right now, they are celebrating winning the State Basketball Championship in their division for the first time ever.

What they would like is recognition for the resilience they have shown during tough times, and a little some help so they can do even better in the future.

I have friends from high school, still living in Pittsfield, who voted for Trump. Often it was a protest vote: they wanted to stick their thumb in the eye of the liberal cosmopolitan who they feel scorned them, judging them as unworthy, somehow complicit in their own decline.

My friends have good hearts and I’d trust them with my life. If I ever got in a real jam, it would want them covering my back – not some yuppie cosmopolitan.

Robert Fried, in his article, praised red state populists for their sacrifices in times of war. I can attest to that.

Whether you were for or against the Vietnam war, my friends and acquaintances, who went to Pittsfield High, stepped up to serve, some of us at great personal cost: three were seriously wounded, two were killed, and one, a decorated combat veteran, committed suicide.

Thank you Robert Fried for your fine piece, Sympathy of the Populists. I will close by echoing your advice, asking each of us to reexamine our own social class prejudices, as if the fate of our democracy depends on it.

Because, in fact, it does!

xxx




A zen lesson learned

From the walkway along Exeter River
CC Jean Stimmell: 6/23/16


Snatching the booty from beneath my feet
while I stood flat-footed, lost in thought,
Blue heron flies away with the prize

From the walkway along Exeter River
CC Jean Stimmell: 6/23/16


Thursday, April 19, 2018

In uncertain times like these, anything can happen

CC Jean Stimmell: 4/18/18


Today walking the dog along Great Bay
I was blessed by a momentary glimpse
lit by the sudden emergence of the sun
of a scaly, prehistoric beast emerging 
from 66 million years of hibernation

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Spring Wedding?

Walking Coco along Great Bay at Wagon Wheel Farm,
 a popular place to host special occasions,
 I saw in the distance, a multitude of bright floral colors 
protruding out of a trash barrel.

Flowers left over from an early Spring wedding?
Or so I thought until I got closer.

Wagon Wheel Farm: 4/7/18
CC Jean Stimmell

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Time to turn back and descend the stair

Ordione State Park: 4/2/18
CC Jean Stimmell
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
...
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions 
which a minute will reverse.*

* from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Out of Our Depth

Crab found impaled on a bush at Sea Point Beach
CC Jean Stimmell: 3/23/18

As a crab, snatched by a seagull,
is ripped out of its depth,
so too are we,
as Trump’s prey,
being yanked up
 from our depths,
destined  only
 to be dropped,
dashed upon the
sharp edges of
our worst dreams

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Transformation

Jean Stimmell©2018
What will it take for our skeletal moral landscape
to bud and flower like the desert blooms after the rain,

washing away the specter of that knuckle-dragging,
chest-thumping, narcissist called  Trump?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A walk on Hampton Beach today

Jean Stimmell©2018

Among the dunes
solitary in winter 
I feel in my element
a prehistoric person
before all the shit happened


Stories we tell ourselves

Chairs Conversing on Pleasant Pond
Jean Stimmell©2011

According to a recent NYT’s article, scientists are in a race against time, studying the last, remaining groups of hunter-gatherers before they disappear, co-opted by our modern ways.

These foragers reflect our species’ earliest successful way of life, before the invention of agriculture. Scientists are studying them closely to solve a riddle that has long puzzled evolutionary biologists: How did humans learn cooperative behavior such as food-sharing, the care of others, the coordination of tasks, and the acceptance of social norms?

In a word: what made them successful?

There’s no question: we have a world to learn from hunter-gatherers when it comes to sustainability. They have been around for 90 percent of human history without leaving any environmental footprint at all.

In addition, this study confirms other admirable traits, recorded in previous studies as typical for foraging people: “the values of gender equality, friendship and the social acceptance of difference.

The behavior of these alleged “primitives” stands in stark contrast to the polarized food fights and divisive twitter storms that plague our modern, “civilized” society.

On top of that, what gave one tribe the advantage over another, according to the scientists, is an added, magic ingredient: Individuals who lived in camps with more skilled storytellers, cooperated more with one another and, hence, were more successful in foraging.

In other words, success depended on good story telling!

“When asked to choose with whom they would most like to live, they overwhelmingly favored gifted storytellers over those who were known for their skill in hunting, fishing…or medicine. Life, most of those polled agreed, is simply better in the company of good stories.”

This makes perfect sense to me as a writer and a psychotherapist. Our stories are what give our lives meaning. As the poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, the universe is made of stories, not atoms.

David Loy. Buddhist author and teacher who has written extensively on the subject, says: “If the world is made of stories, stories are not just stories. They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible.”2

But stories can have a dark side, something we are all painfully aware of today as we struggle with our modern media, clogged, as it is, with conspiracy theories and fake news.

By comparing the stories that hunter-gatherers tell with the stories we tell in contemporary America, we can get a sense of what has gone awry.

Hunter-gatherer stories favor cooperation and compromise with each other; they are humble about themselves and their place in the world, knowing that they are only a slim, single strand within the infinite web of nature. Conversely, modern society’s stories favor the primacy of economics: cut-throat competition and survival of the fittest.

British philosopher Alan Watts sheds light on how this change took place. In tribes without formal institutions, social roles were largely undifferentiated; every one was more or less on equal ground.

However as institutions grew more formal, work became separated from family and different classes were formed. Slowly stories changed from promoting cooperation in society to promoting conflict: learning how to control society by pitting groups of us against each other.

No longer do we listen to the skilled storytellers in our midst who personify our essential humanness. Instead, we have fallen under the sway of corporate PR masters who spin webs of control and deploy technicians bearing algorithms that disempower us all.

The story we are living out today, like it or not, is the story of capitalism It is our new religion. We worship the high priests of finance who bow down to the mystical, hidden hand of the marketplace –which they claim if left unregulated by the government – will lead to perfect equilibrium between parties – a shining nirvana beyond the grasp of mere mortals.

But that isn’t the people’s story; it is a myth told by storytellers of the moneyed class to promote their self-interest. Rather than leading to perfect competition between parties, it leads inevitably to oligarchy with the preponderance of wealth in the hands of the few.

One statistic says it all: “The three richest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom half of our country combined –that’s 160 million of us.”4

But we should never give up hope because we, the people, will ultimately tell our own stories. As the late, great Ursula Le Guin said not long before she died: “The power of capitalism seems inescapable– but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any power can be resisted and changed by human beings.
XXX

2 David Loy, “The World is Made of Stories, page 3.

3 Watts, Alan. Tao of Philosophy (Alan Watts Love Of Wisdom) (Kindle Locations 83-85). Tuttle
Publishing. Kindle Edition.

4 https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/11/08/three-richest-americans-now-own-more-wealth-bottom-half-us-combined-report