Monday, September 26, 2011

Chris Hedges speaks at Occupy Wall Street

Writer and activist Chris Hedges has some powerful things to say about the forces and conditions that have led to the peaceful and many-days-long demonstration currently taking place in New York: Occupy Wall Street (peaceful on the part of protesters, that is; utterly and unforgivably violent on the part of the NYCPD, who are brutalizing and macing non-resisting people left and right, while shouting "Don't resist! I said, STOP RESISTING!" in an obvious attempt to cover their pathetic asses.)

Please watch and share. (And of course, watch the updated videos at Occupy Wall Street and share those, too.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review: Nassir Ghaemi's A First-Rate Madness is a first-rate read

As I have written about before, I am more than passingly familiar with the euphoria of creativity-filled up-cycles as well as the darkness of their unfortunate counterparts, those hideous depressive phases during which everything seems boring or bleak; tears and hopelessness are the order of the day; and even simple activities like picking out a shirt or brushing hair turn into loathsome, dreaded, and even inexecutable chores--forget actually doing anything productive. So it was with great interest that I dove into the literary results of Dr. Nassir Ghaemi's intriguing research and analysis, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.

Mental illness--well, I like to call it being Mentally Interesting, for which descriptor I will thank the writer (and fellow Mentally Interesting Person) Jerod Poore--is not quite the taboo subject it was a few decades ago; it is no longer a hush-hush domain to which mysteriously disappeared classmates are consigned ("Where did she go?" "I don't know, but I heard she had a nervous breakdown"); and--thank the Fates, along with relatively recent advances in neuroscience--it's no longer a complete mystery (although, it must be said, the human mind is inarguably the last great frontier, and modern medicine has only just begun to embark on its journey toward solving the biochemical and behavioral puzzles therein).

The core thesis of A First-Rate Madness: Rational, calm, balanced, agreeable, reasonable, conciliatory, and sane people are lovely to have around. Ahem. But when all Hell breaks loose, you want a leader who can stand at the edge of the abyss, confront the monster within, and stare that horned and tentacled bastard down. For this kind of nation-saving and history-making leadership, only a Mentally Interesting person will do, knowing as he or she does (like the back of the hand, in fact) the precise reach of said monster's limbs and the explicit scope of its awfulness.

At the outset, Ghaemi identifies the parallel nature of a clinician's diagnosis (of a mentally ill patient) and a historian's analysis. Both require a careful study of symptoms, of course, as well as an identification (if possible) of genetic components and an overview of indicated treatments--those sought, those avoided or not yet available, and those which succeeded (or failed).

Invoking the personal and fascinating stories of figures such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatmas Gandhi, Ghaemi then points to the qualities--conspicuous in their abundance--that variously characterize those leaders who suffer with (and also, to be sure, exalt in) mental illness throughout the course of their lives, those being: Creativity, realism, empathy, and resilience.

In the case of General Sherman, for example, we are shown a leader who wholly transformed warfare from the faltering Napoleonic model of concentrated frontal assault to a bold and creative approach which took into account the economic and moral aspects of rebellion and thus enabled a totality of destruction that was at once brutal and wildly successful. But he was not, despite popular myth, a glorifier of war. Ghaemi explains:

Reconstructing the real Sherman, with his coercion as well as his complexity, means recognizing that he had manic-depressive illness. In fact, of all the leaders in this book, I would say that Sherman is the prototypical mentally ill leader. In different aspects of his bipolar disorder, he displayed many of the powers of mental illness to improve leadership: depressive realism, empathy for the South (before and after the war), resilience beyond measure, and unique military creativity. Yet until recently, no historian had carefully assessed whether Sherman himself suffered from deep, indeed sick emotions. This task was taken up by Michael Fellman, a gregarious American, self-exiled in Canada since the 1960s, where he is professor emeritus of history at Simon Fraser University. A specialist in the American Civil War, Fellman had been taught traditional history: trace the documents of who did what, who said what, and what happened; pull it together for the reader; and let it go. Such history seldom made well-grounded analyses about the abnormal mental states of the people it studied.

Having himself suffered a painful depression, Fellman realized that traditional history was mistaken because such conditions have an enormous impact on people--famous, infamous, and obscure. He became attuned to evidence of abnormal mental states among the Civil War figures he studied. Besides Lincoln's melancholy, Fellman discovered depressive tendencies in Robert E. Lee, and outright mental illness in General Sherman. What followed was a biography--researching and reporting facts based on primary sources--that a century after Sherman's own memoir unmasked the whole man: greater than we thought, in part because he was much sicker than we knew.

Greater than we thought, in part because he was much sicker than we knew.

A First-Rate Madness is suffused throughout with this generosity of spirit, with bittersweet reflections and a profoundly humane sensibility. (In fact, while reading it, one might wonder if the author himself is also a Mentally Interesting human being, so impeccable and accurate are his observations of the afflicted.)

To wit: the layperson, upon reading about the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King, might infer that pacifism and idealism were both central components of his character and dominant forces that controlled his worldview. Not so, asserts Ghaemi, who proceeds to construct a portrait far richer, and more textured and heartbreakingly real, than any study of Dr. King this writer has encountered to date (my emphasis):

The Martin Luther King of popular mythology is a cardboard icon, brought out once a year on a holiday, with little resemblance to the real historical man. The cardboard King was a pacifist idealist; he wanted everyone to make peace and hold hands. The real King was an aggressive, confrontational realist; he believed that all men were evil in part, including himself; he thought that violence was everywhere and unavoidable, including within himself. "Nonviolence" did not mean the absence of violence, but the control of violence so that it was directed inward rather than outward.

And there are many, many more such insights to be appreciated in this fine book, as well as a clear-eyed analysis of those leaders whose personalities might best be described as even-keeled, rational, or else well-balanced, but whose marks on history--if even they made any--are mostly pastel-hued and watery as opposed to fierce, glittering, bloody, or--invoking here the title of another enlightening book by a thoughtful psychologist (Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison)--touched by fire.

A written work may be described as truly successful, I think, when you find yourself quoting it in your head, even weeks and months after having read its final passages. Inasmuch as I have been doing just that--taking in the words and deeds of our current American leadership with new eyes, even--I'd say that A First-Rate Madness is an extraordinary accomplishment. And I highly recommend it.



Unlike numerous recently-published tomes, Dr. Ghaemi's book--refreshingly, and perhaps intentionally--steers clear of former half-term Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, despite her erratic behavior, propensity to deceive, and general mental instability, all of which are topics of analysis you'd think would be irresistible to any academic psychiatrist, particularly one who's exploring the connection between mental illness and leadership. When I wondered aloud why this might be so, my son's quip provided the obvious answer:

"That's because she's not a leader, Mama."

UPDATE: be sure to check out Dr. Ghaemi's blog, Mood Swings.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

It's hard to believe he was a Republican

“Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

- President Dwight Eisenhower (R)

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Break for beauty: the amazing Alina Cojocaru dances Don Quixote with Johan Korborg

Meet Alina Cojocaru, a stunningly talented Romanian ballerina--now a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet of London--who in my humble opinion may well become the next Margot Fonteyn (and as you can imagine, I would never make such comparisons lightly). I'm not certain of the date of this performance; Cojocaru's Kirti (in Don Quixote) marked her debut ballet with the Kiev school in the mid-nineties, when she was a teen. She's now thirty and is engaged to her partner Johan Korborg, who, as you can see in this clip, is no slouch himself.

But as for Cojocaru...*sigh*...what beautiful lines and what absolutely incredible extension. I watched this three times, with a goosebumps bristling along my limbs and lump wedged in my throat. She's technically near-perfect but is by no means a flawless dancer, not yet: she travels a tiny bit while executing those whiplash fouettes, for one thing. And dancing Kirti requires more fire, at least to my romantic mind. Cojocaru will mature and develop subtleties like emotionality and musicality over time. In this performance, however, she is perhaps too calm and collected.

Nonetheless, I am sure Dame Margot would approve. I know I'll be watching.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Mutinous Memories

My Mum recently sent me the link to a 2005 article in Miami New Times about the heyday of a certain notorious nightclub in that city, where I lived as a teenager. It was called The Mutiny:

In its time there was nothing like the Mutiny Hotel and today it lives on in hindsight like the afterimage of a hallucination, bright but blurry. The Mississippi Delta is said to begin in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis; likewise the Mutiny in its day defined Miami's psychic boundaries. It was the nerve center of the city's exploding cocaine trade, a favorite hangout of globetrotting spies, and a desperately popular watering hole for Latin America's nouveau riche. It was meant to be elegant, and was, but early on it became infamous and edgy, and reveled in the reputation. Its most decadent highs were a carnival barker's advertisement for the Seventies, and its decline was an early object lesson in America's S&L crisis."I did a movie called life, with actors that were real people," says Burton Goldberg, former owner of the Mutiny. "We had dictators, secret police, drug people, bankers, the international trade, gunrunners, and celebrities: Rod Serling, Senator Kennedy, Cher, Hamilton Jordan, Jacqueline Onassis, George Bush. Mimes and magicians! Naked dancers in very fine taste, not prurient! Music! Chairs with enormous arms!

As it so happens, the Mutiny was where Yours Truly worked as a waitress for several months during a semester-long hiatus from my junior year at UF. A few years ago, I wrote about the experience here at Litbrit, as well for Ezra's eponymously-titled blog. At the time, I changed the names of the club--and certain patrons--to protect the not-so-innocent. But what the hell, the club itself is no more, and my choice of faux names--The Uprising--was a pretty transparent synonym for the club's real name, anyway.

If you like Scarface and spy novels--or perhaps just fancy a break from all the politics and sad, sad 9/11 stuff that's on the tube and in the 'Tubes this week--you might enjoy my little memoir/story about working and living it up Miami-style at the end of the Disco age. I invite you to read Sunshine, Cigar Boxes, and Semi-Automatics:

With Lena's help, I opened and poured bottle after bottle of Dom PĂ©rignon; I served Ceasar salads and filets mignon and enormous Maine lobsters erupting crabmeat and brandied cream; and I brought several glasses of Johnny Walker Black on the rocks from the bar, where I'd already made friends with Sam, an art student at Florida International and a fellow Monty Python wonk.

"Alberto's here again, huh?" he said when I requested the third such cocktail. "Though pretty much everyone drinks this, you'll find. But it's Monday, and there aren't too many people who can put away this much Scotch on a weeknight." He drained the bottle and slipped its nozzle onto a new, full one. "You'll have fun here. You'll make good money."

So I had heard. But thus far, Lena and I had waited on exactly one party.

By three in the morning, though, I'd served a few other tables and opened another half-dozen bottles of Champagne. Alberto and his crew were beginning to look restless, but they hadn't asked for the check. I was certain it would be outrageous, well into the hundreds of dollars; Lena informed me that the two grand Alberto spent that night was nothing compared to some of his weekend expenditures, indeed, nothing compared to the bankrolls through which some of the club's other guests regularly burned. [Continued...]