A short song for Phillip

I wound down the hill in an alien land, Morrissey chanted lonely mantras, the pain quickly accumulated incalculably, and I began to weave the familiar tapestry that tells an old, old story.

Russell Brand, My Life Without Drugs

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I think it’s right to say that my Granddad was an alcoholic.  I never knew my father’s dad.  He was born in the century before my birth, and lived most of his life unencumbered by new-fangled gadgets like electric lights in the home (his daughters paid to have the house connected to the grid while he determinedly went off to bed with his candle).  Almost everything I know about him comes to me through the lens of his youngest daughter who is going to be 90 in a few years and was raised by an aunt and uncle, as my father was.  It is her view that he was an alcoholic, and I think she is right.  Some people use the word alcoholic too loosely and include a lot of people who simply like drinking.  Granddad seems to have been one of those people who often wanted to vanish down the hole of oblivion that hard, heavy drinking can offer.

It was my Aunt who made me understand what was particularly bad about being an ex-alcoholic (he went dry).  I suppose I had the view that being an ex-alcoholic or drug addict was a celebratory thing; that it became a positive part of your identity that showed how strong you were.  That’s often how it is shown on TV or in movies.  My Aunt was of the opinion that the dry version of her father was a man without a drink who always wanted one.  Each day without a drink must have been a celebration and a torture.  Imagine not being able to administer the salve for your cosmic wound when the salve is all around.  Everyday.  Day by day.

When my Aunt was clearing out my Granddad’s room after he died she found hundreds of little pieces of paper with IOUs from his mates down at the pub.  The ex-alcoholic down at the pub buying drinks for his friends.  That must have been a very peculiar kind of torture.  All of the trappings of your delicious addiction and none of the release.  I hope those mates paid him back.  I hope they didn’t kid him too hard, or take advantage, but they probably did.  Maybe he didn’t want to be paid back anyway.  Maybe buying other people drinks allowed him to participate in the ritual and camaraderie and that was enough, or something anyway.

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It’s normal to want to punish people.  If someone deviates from the law, or from the rules, it seems to be an instinct to be punitive. I suspect it is wired into us at a deep level and explains why love for the stranger or the estranged doesn’t come naturally to people or the societies they administer.

The rush to punish is something I really had no cause to think about until 2006 when I became a teacher and a father.  Babies and classrooms of unruly 13 year olds don’t act like you want them to: they just don’t take orders.  For not unrelated reasons, I also read books about anger management in 2006.  I don’t want to make light of this because it was a defining moment in my life.  Until 2006 I viewed myself as a laid back guy, who mumbled and bumbled about the place, but after 2006 I realised that I too could be someone who yelled, who delivered ultimatums, who demanded the undemandable: respect.  2006 came on the heels of the 2004.  After Cathy and I came back from Japan I crashed hard.  I walked out of a job, I failed to write a book, I drank too much, I became too familiar with the staff of Aro Video and watched silent movies and Russian films by myself far too much (silent-Russian movies were obviously the pinnacle).  The years from 2003 until 2008 changed my understanding of myself.

One thing that stayed with me from those books about anger management was the idea that anger stems from frustration; the frustration being that your view of how the world should be and what is actually happening are not squaring up.  In 2004 my version of myself as a writer was thoroughly debunked, and replaced with the realisation that I have very little stamina for writing, and that I am prone to binges of self-pity and nostalgia.  That was pretty frustrating and it made me angry.  In 2006, trying a new path, I had thought that if a teacher asked students to do something they would.  Finding out that this was not true was frustrating.  Also, even though everyone tells you about the difficulties of a newborn, it somehow doesn’t sink in until you are experiencing it.  Experiencing the refusal of a child to comply with good sense can be incredibly enraging.

Which is why I can understand why some people hit their children.  I have felt that rage.  It transforms your understanding of yourself.  It makes many horrible things that you have read about or seen on TV a little more comprehensible.  Overcoming these feelings is what most of us do, because we don’t want to be that person, because we believe in other ways, and want better than that for people we love.  I find that overcoming the flash of anger is an ongoing thing.  It doesn’t come across me very often at all in a classroom anymore, and far more rarely at home, but it is still there.  The power of those closest to you to inflame rage is extraordinary, and on a bad, bad day, in the tired and irritable evening, I can feel the flare of anger burst in my brain as one or other of my daughters refuses for the tenth time to do some simple act.  I don’t think it is right to deny this in ourselves.  It is wrong or – if you prefer – unhealthy – to be overcome by rage, or succumb entirely to despair, or always seek escape in whatever narcotic gives you temporary release, but it is not wrong to admit that these things exist in you.

As a society I think we have this problem: of denial and punishment over compassion and restoration.  When the picture of how the world is supposed to be and what is actually happening refuse to square up we seem to have an instinct to try to punish the problem into shape or turn our backs.  Yet, here’s the thing, almost every single student I have worked with who is in trouble with the school system has a complex set of background and personal issues that perfectly explain their lack of uniform, or their truancy or their hostile reaction to authority, or their disengagement from a system they have not succeeded in.  Which, I would suggest, is often true of what happens in society in general.  Those in the prison system, or on the police watch lists, or heckling at Waitangi Day have a voice we should be listening to.  It tells us something about ourselves that we need to hear and not be frustrated and angry with.  If we don’t listen what are we?  Indifferent to suffering? Uninterested in justice? Lacking compassion?

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From what I understand my father left teaching because of a bullying Head of Department, and a school that enthusiastically embraced corporal punishment.  Not enthusiastically embracing corporal punishment as a male teacher in the 1950s and 60s must have been seen as a bit odd.  Although it seems bizarre to me that a society that imprisoned people for assault also permitted teachers to strike students and incarcerated conscientious objectors, it is nonetheless an hypocrisy that is true.  The radical notion of dealing with problems with compassion and love has gotten a lot of people into trouble.  There is a fierceness about it that seems to leave coercive power with only one type of response: the crucifix, or the assassin’s bullet, or the baton or the prison cell.  Of course the little dramas of life are usually not writ this large.  My father quit his job.  Walked out.  His walking out was brave, I think.  My version, in 2004, was more cowardly.

I feel torn sometimes between two men I didn’t know.  Can I be the image I have of my father, or the story I tell to myself about his dad?  Neither of these things – the image or the story – are really true, they are caricatures that I use as symbols, like David Lean used the voices of the angel and the demon on either shoulder of Lawrence of Arabia as he surveys the fleeing Turks before him: Damascus or No Prisoners?  The dream and the ideal, or the thirst for bloody revenge?  O’Toole’s face is an open, tormented book of conflicting passions that seem almost sexual.  Somehow savagery is easier, simpler and cleaner.  Unfortunately it leads endlessly to more savagery.  Better the torment of the dream; better the dry alcoholic down the pub buying another round for his mates than the giving in and the stupor and the regret.

The first time I was aware of Phillip Seymour-Hoffman was when I saw Boogie Nights.  Cathy and I watched it again last night for the first time since it came out.  Aside from a general memory that it was a very good film, the only specific memory I had of the film was around Seymour-Hoffman’s performance.  Considering how good the film is overall, and how many great actors there are giving fantastic performances, it’s pretty amazing that Seymour-Hoffman’s role became the stand out in my mind.  Re-watching the movie though only confirms that this is fair.  His role is a train wreck you can’t tear your eyes away from with a climax that reminds me of an Antony and the Johnsons’ lyric: Losing, it comes in a cold wave / Of guilt and shame all over me.

Russell Brand writes about the torment of the addict well.  But he would.  He’s been writing about it, and campaigning about it, and living inside it for years now.  He tells me things about myself and my Granddad that are both a shock and a nod of recognition.  He confirms things about society that I know to be true.  Society wants life to be its version of normal, and becomes frustrated and angry with the refusers, the wounded, and the disenfranchised.

I feel a little bit angry with Seymour-Hoffman.  Like a lot of people.  I was dismayed to hear that he had three children.

Then again, what should we do?  Any movement to condemnation feels like I am condemning impulses that are in many of us, that were in my Granddad, and that I know are in me.  It’s hard not to watch Seymour-Hoffman’s Scotty J. sitting in the his car crying and see the abject despair of one who gave into their needs, and regrets it, and will do it again, and regret it again.  When is the right time to close the door on Scotty J. forever?  Or the student at the dean’s office door?  Or the voice raised in protest on the lawn in front of Busby’s house?  Take a look at our ethnicity statistics in prisons, schools and hospitals and consider your response carefully.  Consider the addictions of our society and consider the costs.

Brother, let me give you a hand.

Philip-Seymour-Hoffman

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