Weekly Insanity

Good sitcom characters are likeably insane. The television industry is very careful with its money, preferring long-running franchises to succinct, original storytelling. This means that sitcoms are populated with characters who generally will not change week to week. We want to count on Diane Chambers to act intellectual, Michael Scott to be inappropriate, Sheldon Cooper to be a difficult genius, and these characters have to get into the same kinds of problems every week.

I’m using Einstein’s definition of insanity here – each week these characters do the same things but expect different results. Characters are usually coloured with at least one type of mania. Their obsessions and blind spots serve as the engine of their adventures. Real personal growth in any of these characters alters the dramatic dynamic of the show, which is why if there are any major character changes, they usually happen after the first season (often redundant characters are written out and where the dynamism is weak new ones are written in or roles shift).

In Modern Family, for example, Cam and Mitchell each are foils. Cam is full of flair and fabulousness while Mitchell is the neurotic, nervous type. Each week they are afraid of getting caught being who they are and they usually lie to avoid awkward situations. These awkward situations each week resolve in reconciliation and life goes on as usual. But each week they make the same mistakes. They never learn, never become less fabulous or nervous, things don’t get better or worse for them.

Because television needs to generate stories dependably, fictional characters need their blind spots. A conscientious character would stop getting into trouble while a slightly insane character provides more dramatic latitude, more comedic opportunity and a more consistent viewing experience.

If these characters were friends of ours we would be frustrated they keep getting into the same trouble. Unless, of course, we were stuck in a complimentary pattern of enabling.

While sitcom characters are generally unrealistic. Of course there are plenty of people in the world who do make the same mistakes every week. None of us fix all our mistakes, but some people are particularly bad. Enter reality television.

The reason shows like Jersey Shore are compelling is that they actually do feature insane people who seem to learn nothing from their experiences. They repeat mistakes ad nauseum. In fact, these people don’t seem to notice their mistakes at all. If every week you get drunk and get into a fight, I must assume it is because you want to get drunk and fight. In which case I don’t like you.

The challenge for sitcoms is to make characters insane while remaining likeable. Jack Donaughy, super-Republican of 30 Rock, pursued corporate and social domination every week but remained hilarious. By contrast Leslie Knope, political nerd of Parks and Recreation, ran out of steam after the first season and has grown consistently more erratic to keep us entertained.

Every week we can count on Sterling Archer (Archer) to get the job done while bagging girls and killing spies, and because the character is a fresh iteration of an old archetype, we don’t get bored. Reagan Brinkley from Up All Night started as an ambitious TV producer, and when she decided to stay home with her child the show fell apart, both creator Emily Spivey and star Christina Applegate left, and the show now hangs in limbo.

The insanity is just a matter of personal taste. Give me someone with my own brand of insanity and I’ll watch. If the insanity mirrors some of the mania I have in my own life, it will resonate and I’ll tune in to vicariously experience my own passions and paranoia play out every week.

Even better is to watch shows with dynamic and nuanced characters. Have you seen Breaking Bad yet?

Walking With Fire

Early in university I had a pretty nasty bout of insomnia. After a few weeks I really started to notice the bizarre mood swings that result from no sleep. In the course of one hour I could laugh hysterically at the most unfunny things, then almost weep because my coffee was cold. At night I couldn’t shut off my thoughts, and I couldn’t ignore them enough to fall asleep. My brain jumped from topic to topic without any focus, like flicking through channels on the television. By morning, after five or six hours of this without any break, I’d get up and go to school. It wasn’t long before my life felt like a hallucination. It wasn’t as awesome as it sounds.

I had a good friend who wasn’t sleeping either, and we both compounded the issue by overdrinking coffee. We decided to watch all of Twin Peaks consecutively. This includes a 1.5-hour pilot episode, twenty-nine episodes and the feature film that is the crown jewel of the experience, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It took us about thirty-five hours. Even though sleep wasn’t a real option for either of us, the quality of consciousness during and after a marathon like that is particularly strange. We must have drank three pots of coffee, eaten two pies (one cherry, one apple), and snacked on junk food between pies, so by the time we were finished our brain chemistry was in shambles.

We finished around three or four in the morning and I walked the short distance home to clear my head. But I had been about a week without a night of sleep and had just been on the multidimensional roller coaster ride of Twin Peaks, plus I was full of caffeine and sugar, so my head was anything but clear. The walk home was like wading through neon porridge.

I noticed a bright, warm glow coming from down my street. Closer inspection revealed that the front porch of my house was blazing with fire, flames about five feet tall. I ran up the porch, reached over the fire to ring the doorbell hoping to wake someone up. I tried to stamp out the flames before they caught the awning on fire.

It was a big, blocky, wooden planter in the shape of a swan that burned. The thing used to hold plants. The thing was put together with nails.

My foot came right down on a nail that drove through the sole of my shoe into the ball of my foot. When I lifted my foot there was a smoldering piece of wood attached to it. I backed down the porch on one foot, hands on the railings, as my mom opened the front door and realized what was going on. She got water while I pulled off my shoe, prying the nail out of my foot at a painful angle.

A pitcher of water put out the blackened swan. The fire was under control.

Inside I pulled off my sock and was surprised to find no blood. The nail had been hot enough to cauterize the opening so my foot was swelling up with blood. With an old pair of fingernail scissors I punctured the skin and blood shot out with such a force that it painted a thin red line on the far wall, like a big squirt from a ketchup bottle. I laughed my ass off.

An hour later I was in a deep sleep.

“Is this real Ben? Or is it some strange and twisted dream?” - Jerry Horne

Change Your Brain – Pt. 3

It’s annoying to me when politicos criticize their opponents for “flip-flopping” on issues. Anyone actively seeking enlightenment will tell you that changing one’s mind and opinions is part of the process. It would be nice if politicians were actively seeking cultural enlightenment. Partisanship and one-sided thinking leads to a lack of adaptability.

In the early stages of successful meditation it’s common to have the realization that we are more than just our bodies. We are minds that think and feel, process information, and create new ideas. Except in reproduction and the physical activities of arts and crafts, creativity happens in the mind. Soon the meditator might feel like they are a Mind, first and foremost, that uses the body like a tool.

The belief that “I am a Mind” might lead to metaphysics, belief in God or gods and ‘upper realms’, questions of ontology, spiritism, eschatology, and all sorts of non-physical contemplations. Suddenly one might feel one is more than a mind and settle on the conclusion that “I am a spirit”. Mind and body seem like lower realms caught up in maya, the world of form and matter (in other words, the transitory illusions of everyday life).

As one’s observational powers improve, the mind-blowing successes of early meditation don’t come as often. This could easily lead the practitioner to believe that their experiences of God or higher spiritual dimensions were neurological aberrations brought on by physiological exercises. It’s common for meditators (particularly in Zen) to come back to the firm realization that “I am my body”.

Flip-flopping is part of the game of life, as all life is subject to change. The ability to change one’s mind on big-ticket ideas is actually a good thing, and I would sooner trust a politician who changes his or her mind than one who stubbornly sticks to idiotic beliefs.

A changing world needs a changing brain. Part of changing our brains is contemplating different points of view. The following points of view helped flip-flop me closer to my goal.

Raj YogaRaj Yoga by Swami Vivekananda

As far as I’ve read this is the essential book on the mental side of yoga (of which the physical yogas form only the preliminary). Vivekananda guides you right into theory and practice with direct examples and a sense of playfulness that can carry you through the various humps and dry-spells that are inevitable in this kind of activity. Compared to many of the other, older Indian books on yoga, (like the Shiva Samhita) this one has only a moderate amount of culturally-specific symbolism to decipher. It uses the analogy of the conscious mind as a monkey, jumping about from branch to branch on the tree of knowledge, squawking and eating whatever it can, but resting only in sleep. The techniques in this book can help calm that monkey down, but it goes far beyond that. This is enlightenment training. I recommend this text for anyone who wants to get serious about meditation.

 

Collected FictionsCollected Fictions by Jorges Luis Borges

While all his work seems great, I’m mostly thinking of the two short story collections called The Garden of Forking Paths and The Aleph, both of which are contained in this one handy unit. This is fiction at its most potent. When I used to read Philip K. Dick I would see a blurb on the jacket claiming that Dick was the “homegrown Borges”, and when I finally got around to reading the Argentinian-grown Borges, I found the analogy to be a good one. Reading Borges is a lesson on narrative economy and big ideas. His stories range from historical realism to mystical fable to flat-out fantasy, and his ability to condense huge ideas into short stories is unparalleled in anything I’ve read. Many feel that Borges reinvented the short story and I can see why. Because of the power and brevity, Borges offers the most bang for your buck. I recommend Borges for writers, mystics and intellectuals.

“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” – Jorge Luis Borges, from the Afterword to The Maker

 

MagickMagick by Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley was a mountaineer, chess master, poet, writer, yogi, black magician, white magician, philosopher, heroin-addict, bisexual sex-addict, “wickedest man in the world”, and all around great guy. His corpus of writing is immense, and Magick might be his most comprehensive masterwork. Detailing necessary training, tools of the trade, philosophical grounding, practical techniques and mystical symbolism, this massive work gives the reader just about everything they need to start practicing real magick. So what is magick? It is the art of causing a change in conformity with the Will. Ceremonial magic has been around for thousands of years and it’s still practiced today. Even with the modern advancements of neuroscience, psychoanalysis and depth psychology, the techniques in this book remain effective. Get to know the strange agencies that live in your subconscious and affect real change in your behaviors and thoughts. The best part of this work is that Crowley tells the reader to avoid imposing any objective validity on the spirits, sephiroth, symbols and so-forth, and simply pay attention to this fact: when certain actions are performed, certain things happen. Things can get weird with this one, so I don’t recommend it for anyone who isn’t mentally and physically healthy. It is for serious students of the occult.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 2

One of the earliest influential philosophers is Thales from ancient Greece. Since him there has been a continuous succession of thinkers who built upon their predecessors, criticizing what they don’t like, correcting what they can, and emphasizing what makes the most sense. Since Thales we can trace the path of Western thought through to today, mapping the brain change of the world, and it’s all pretty interesting, minus the Dark Ages.

The classical Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates, Plato) set the stage for world philosophy, and many other cultures absorbed their ideas before the formation of distinct philosophies of their own. Some would claim the Greeks were the fathers of philosophy, who made an art of thinking that benefited the rest of humanity. Others would argue that the Greek philosophers stunted the growth of future free-thinkers, limiting would-be revolutionaries with their categories and strict methods.

A goal of many intellectuals is to surpass their formative history and offer something new to the world, whether it be an invention, a way of thinking, or a new analysis of something we’ve taken for granted. It can be hard to break away from tradition and offer something new, but one thing I’ve learned is that the broader the net we cast for information, the bigger the potential catch. Even opposing opinions offer us a chance to compare and contrast and flex our own intellectual and intuitive genius.

I think reading is one of the best uses of time. The following books helped me to think in new ways.

Critical PathCritical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller

Bucky Fuller is an autodidact, inventor, engineer, and revolutionary thinker. His goal is simple: to make things easier for human beings by thinking about a problem and coming up with a novel solution. It doesn’t seem like he made a fortune, but his perspective has influenced a couple generations of scientists, philosophers and entrepreneurs. A major thrust in this work is the idea of ephemeralization (a term he coined), which describes our technological development trend of being able to do more work, more efficiently, in less time, with less material. Think of what a computer looked like in the 1970s and compare it to your smartphone. The brilliance of this book is that Fuller is truly a systems-thinker, and always has the big picture in mind. And best of all, he’s a little kooky. I recommend this book for the socially conscious.

 

Quantum PsychologyQuantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson

Written with humour, erudition, and infectious optimism, this handy little manual offers us a new look at our selves. This book is a guided tour to opening new ways of thinking and acting. It asks us to look at what we know of the world, then to look at how we know these things and why. In 200 pages this book challenges every belief, every behavior, and every excuse to avoid being who we want to be. This is a manual about writing your own life script but it is far from being New Age. Wilson’s voice is authoritative, wise and hilarious throughout, and every chapter offers practical exercises for the reader to begin opening new horizons. Recommended for everyone.

 

StoryStory by Robert McKee

This book, and its author, are a little bit legendary in the film industry for a variety of reasons. McKee attacks the construction of a screenplay using big, fundamental ideas that shed light on what stories have to offer to the human experience and what makes a story satisfying. His aggressive writing style almost challenges the reader to prove him wrong when he explains why character is story, why story must be told through conflict, and why there must be a major emotional value change in every scene, sequence, act, and movie. When I first got the book I assumed, since I like so-called art films, that I would disagree with a lot of what he had to say. After all, Eraserhead doesn’t have much in common with, say, Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But most of the points McKee makes hold true for just about every movie, every novel, every short story, short film, opera, play, campfire story, drunken anecdote…Recommended for anyone interested in storytelling.