Posted by: mydarkestplaces | June 15, 2013

Suicide in dire circumstances

As discussed previously, I’m writing a book about Stalin. Right now I’m caught up principally in the Great Purges of 1937-38. Robert Conquest‘s The Great Terror, often perceived as one of the preeminent books on the Purges under Stalin, is what I’ve been slowly making my way through in small bites before going to work in the mornings.

To oversimplify a pretty horrific five years (1934-39) Stalin in his ever paranoid wisdom was working on getting rid of anyone who he felt threatened by. Men or women – if you were a part of the Party hierarchy you weren’t safe. Particularly if at some point you had spoken out against decisions that Stalin had made or was making. Stalin had a slew of musclemen who weren’t afraid to brutalize and/or murder and/or psychologically terrify anyone Stalin said to. The vast majority of the men and women arrested during this time eventually caved, admitting to whatever “crime” that Stalin wanted them to admit to. As a result the accused quickly found themselves on their way to the GULAGS (that is to say the network of prison labor camps) or the execution block. However, a couple important movers and shakers didn’t get to either place. They ended up dying by their own hand – although speculation abounds that they were assisted along the way.

The question I’m left with is this: You are speciously accused of a crime. You are tortured to within an inch of your life. You are pressured in every inhuman way possible to confess to a crime you didn’t commit. Your family is threatened. Your friends are threatened. You’re told there’s no end in sight to the torture that will be inflicted upon you if you don’t confess. As a result of these insurmountable pressures, there were some men who chose to take their own lives. Maybe they knew they were going to die, and they wanted some agency so they could control the circumstances in which they were dying. Maybe they just steadfastly refused to confess to a crime they didn’t commit. Either way, they took their own lives. But if you were going to be dead anyway, can taking your own life be considered suicide? Frankly, I’m not sure.

Some coffee shop friends say it doesn’t matter, suicide is suicide regardless of the circumstances. But I can’t help but feel Ordzhonikidze and some others took the higher road. I feel the same about terminally ill patients who say, “I don’t want to go out like this.”

In a review I read by E.A. Rees in an academic journal he says, “If the alternative to suicide is being brutally murdered, is it still suicide?” Frankly, I don’t have an easy answer. I don’t think there is an easy answer. Nor should there be when talking about the death of a human being. I’m interested in what you all think. Can you say that someone taking their own life in lieu of being brutally murdered is “suicide”?

Posted by: mydarkestplaces | June 4, 2013

What does it freaking matter?

Newsflash: I’m a love-all-the-people liberal. I mean, not so much the pedophiles, murders and rapists, but, you know. everybody else who doesn’t necessarily fall into the stereotypical mold of what it means to be male or female. Especially because what does it have to do with me?

One of my faves at the coffee shop showed me this article about an insanely talented 22-year old basketball player who’s already played in the Olympics, lead her college team to the NCAA championships, runs roughshod over the competition in the WNBA and is the first openly gay athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Nike. And, oh yeah, she’s freaking gorgy. Statuesque, built, and so much confidence and dignity that it’s no surprise at all that Nike signed her. This led to a discussion between the aforementioned fave and I about friends we have who make us sick with their perfection.

This led me to hunt down on Facebook someone that I knew in college. Back in the day, JJ was a cross-dresser/drag queen. The dude had the best legs on campus. Seriously. It was fun to watch him strut campus in his mini skirts. It might have been just the people that I often found myself hanging around with, but it was always nice to just watch JJ walk (no, strut really is the best word for it) and, despite being isolated in the middle of Northern New York, there weren’t cat calls or pejorative name calling or things like that (that I could hear). Granted, I guess there’s a difference between the liberal oasis-ness of a college campus and beyond.

I digress.

Since graduation, JJ has done the full transition. JJ is now Jasmine. And she is still slammin’. Still the best legs around. And, from the limited pictures I’ve seen, she’s rocking the model scene out in sunny Cali (I think). One of the pictures she has posted on her FB page is a shot of one of her model pictures in an article talking about a lingerie line designed specifically for MtF women.

The lead in talks about this great line created by a “transgender woman.” Which is awesome. Except I long for a day that that doesn’t need to be the opening sentence.  Why do there have to be headlines like, “First female CEO for Yahoo!”, “First Female Secretary of State,” “First African-American President,” “First Gay Professional Athlete.” What does it matter what sort of plumbing someone has or what pigment of melanin is in someone’s skin, who they sleep with at night or how many people they sleep with in the course of a night or week?

 

 

Posted by: mydarkestplaces | June 3, 2013

Tempering

Full disclosure: I’m writing a book. Not a #nanowrimo, fiction sort of book, but a non-fiction book. One that I think needs to be written. I’m writing a book about Stalin.

Since the majority of you have either read this blog, seen my Twitter, heard me geek out in real life, it should be no shock to any of you that I have spent much of the past ten years being incredibly fascinated by Stalin. I even (kind of sort of) wrote a paper about him my senior year of college.*

Why am I here now, planning on writing a book about one of the worst despots in history? Well. Let me ask you a question (this is my elevator pitch, so be ready): what do you know about Stalin? My friends are all exceedingly bright. Many were humanities majors in college, many have gone on to attain higher degrees (JD, MA, PhD), many are just naturally curious. When I’ve posed that question to them they had the same blank look I imagine you’re wearing right now.

When I was growing up – post-Cold War, mind you – the USSR was the big, bad wolf. Alluded to as being “not good” (dirty Commies), but no real detail that I can remember. And Stalin? He came up twice in my secondary history books (certainly didn’t come up before high school): he was Lenin’s successor and he rescued the allies during World War II.**

So. Here I am. Writing a book.

Well, right now I’m in the research phases. Which means I’m reading many journal articles and books. Again, if you follow my Twitter account or are friends with me on Facebook, I’ve been spending a lot of time kvetching about the methodology that some of these “scholars” are using (for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick writes an article based almost solely on contemporary Pravda articles).

What’s been irking me the past couple days, as I work my way through Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror (2008 edition), is he often holds up what he’s finding in the now-opened Soviet Archives as truth. While you can certainly round out and build up more solid conclusions based on information being released from the archives, I am having a really tough time with authors and scholars saying, “well, this OGPU/NKVD/KGB [different generations of Soviet Secret Police] file said it, so it must be true.”

I get that with the release of many millions of documents hitherto secret in the USSR in the 1980s (and in Russia in the 1990s) there was,and is, a lot more information available about what happened in the USSR, particularly under Stalin. I think that we should absolutely be using these files to round out what we have known and to draw more conclusions about the mechanics of what was going on.

What’s giving me pause, and making me so uncomfortable, is that many scholars are saying, “Well, this NKVD file says it, so it must be true!” This seems to disregard the fact that the NKVD lied about stuff. That the Russian government continues to be secretive about what happened back in the day. That many of the most dire directives and actions were never actually written down. 

We absolutely need to take into account the files that have come to light in the last twenty years. We absolutely need to listen to the contemporary voices who are, only now, starting to feel secure enough to speak out. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still have a healthy skepticism about what the government is reporting. Chances are better than even we are never going to have a complete picture about what happened in Russia in the 1930s and 40s.

That isn’t to say we should stop trying to see the complete picture – we dishonor the memory of Stalin’s millions and millions of victims if we stop. I just wish that scholars would stop saying, “Because this official document says it, it must be true.”

 

*I’m still sorry the paper wasn’t better, Dr. Gabriel!

**At least I want to think he came up twice. I do remember him coming up in terms of WWII because I remember the picture of him, Churchill and Roosevelt, but I may just be hoping that my history classes touched upon the Russian Revolution. Which is to say, I might be making that up.

Posted by: mydarkestplaces | May 3, 2013

Capitalizing on tragedy

I must admit to being uncomfortable when, after a major tragedy, I see and hear advertisements everywhere for products promoting solidarity. Facebook and Twitter – and I’m sure MySpace and any other social networking site – are rife with posts saying, “Buy this T-Shirt to show your support for X,Y,Z Place/Victims.” In most cases, some or all of the profits are going to charities/scholarships/memorial funds set up in the victims’ memory. I think that’s a byproduct. I think it’s a salve for the feelings of those who realize they are taking advantage of a tragedy to get face time/free marketing with consumers.

Read More…

Posted by: mydarkestplaces | May 2, 2013

What I want to be when I grow up

A great Maine philanthropist passed away recently. Al Glickman is a name that’s pretty well known throughout Portland. From the Glickman Library on the USM Portland campus to the Glickman Family Center for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook, Glickman’s philanthropic giving touched – and will touch – the lives of hundred of thousands of children, young adults and far beyond.

While this view may be jaded (okay, while this view is jaded) I find that there are a lot of multi-gazillionaires who give of their wealth, but for the write off. Because their publicist says that’s the thing that they should do to recover from some PR snafu. And no, when you reach the bottom line it doesn’t really matter why X or Y organization is getting a gift of $1 million, it just matters that they are getting the gift of $1 million.

But Maine philanthropists seem to be different. There are so many people like this in the state of Maine. Brenda Garrand, Leon Gorman (one of my heroes!), myriad others that fly under the radar. People who have the means to give, and to do so generously, of their time and their money because it’s the right thing to do.

At this point in my life, I don’t have those means. Well, not the monetary means. I do what I can to donate my time, and when I have a spare alm or two I will pitch it towards this, that or the other organization.

Which is all a long preface to me saying this: I’ve finally decided what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a philanthropist. I want to start a scholarship fund at St. Lawrence University. I want to give beaucoup bucks to the United Way. I want to help headstart and other early childhood education organizations thrive.

The problem is getting to a point where I have beaucoup bucks to give, but I figure that’s just a small (big) speed bump along the way. With the wishing, comes drive. I’ll get there eventually. And when I do, I’ll help my community to the best of my abilities.

Cross your fingers it happens sooner rather than later.

Posted by: mydarkestplaces | April 30, 2013

So I’m a prude

I’ll admit it. I don’t like public displays of affection, I am discomfited when there’s an abundance of sex talk. In my opinion, sex, sex acts, foreplay, whatever, these are all things to be done in the privacy of your own home. I understand not everyone feels that way. Heck, I understand that some people get off on exhibitionism, voyeurism, many different permutations thereof. Whatever. That’s not my issue. My issue is that I don’t want to see it.

This is a long lede in.

In a recent bout of insomnia, one of my favorite authors sent out a tweet about David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, wanting to block access to porn via wifi in public areas. In my mind he’s shouting, “But think of the children!”

Here’s my problem with this whole scenario – kids have been finding ways to look at “illicit” content for millennia.

Where they can’t find images, they always have their imagination which, as a former child, I’m willing to bet is quite vivid and active. Fodder for sexual fantasies has never been in short supply.

To be clear, I don’t want kids OR adults looking at porn in public spaces. A) Awwwwkward. B) I’ve already established I’m a prude, I don’t want my coffee with a side of raunchy sex scenes. C) Ew.

My biggest hold up is that it’s a slippery slope when the state – or even the internet service providers – determine what is acceptable to access or not. It quickly goes from porn sites to left- or right-wing blogs being banned. Maybe the powers that be say it’s illegal to look at natural birthing sites or websites devoted to gun sales, or – cod forbid – you need to do research on terror attacks in the last decade. Now the government thinks you’re some hippy terrorist looking to exceed any attack that’s happen before. It doesn’t matter that maybe you’re just writing a research paper on mass shootings in the United States and you happen to be pregnant at the same time.

To be clear – I have no issue with individual places limiting the sites their patrons can go to. Schools do it all the time (have you ever tried visiting Facebook from a school’s wifi?). I’ve been blocked from visiting tumblr when on a public wifi network (due to potentially explicit material). I am fine with these things. The person who is providing the service is saying, “These are the rules.” When the State and corporations get into it saying what’s okay and what’s not, that leaves a horrendously bad taste in my mouth.

I wish the need to limit what sites people can access wasn’t a thing that needed to be addressed. I wish that everybody had the common sense and decency to realize that maybe, just maybe, looking at explicit porn when in a public space isn’t the best thing. But, in the absence of common sense, and with the assumption that people will inevitably do stupid things I think it’s fine for BUSINESSES to limit what sites their customers have access to. In fact, I encourage it.

But the state needs to keep their fingers out of it. It’s a short jump from “protecting the children” to Big Brother. I’d prefer that the state work on locking up pedophiles and rapists for longer than two years instead of dictating what website I can go to strictly because I “might” look at porn in a public space. (This isn’t even broaching the topic of what is and isn’t porn.)

I long for a world where common sense rules the day. A day when we don’t need to be reminded that kids are around the corner. A day when the state no longer feels the need to control what information we access or when and where. A day where we can self-monitor ourselves about what’s acceptable and what’s not in public spaces. Maybe if we all work on it, this dream will come to fruition.

 

Posted by: mydarkestplaces | April 23, 2013

“A learning”

Growing up is funny.

When you’re a child, you’re learning new things all the time (hopefully). You’re learning how to interact with people, hopefully in a positive manner. You’re learning facts and figures. Finally you graduate your primary and secondary school. Maybe you head on to an institute of higher education – whether a two-year or a four-year school. Maybe you don’t and jump right into the work force. Whatever. The learning hasn’t ended, but instead of raw facts and figures you’re learning how to synthesize the information that’s been shoveled into your head into more facts, new theories. And then you hit your mid-twenties and it’s like, “yeah, I’ve got this. I know what’s up.” And you think – and claim – that you’ve learned all there is to learn. And then here come your late twenties and beyond. That time when you’ve finally grown up enough to admit that you don’t know shit.

This is, for the most part, the place where I am today.

For the past week, my good friend, Brent, and I have been debating/arguing about violence in today’s world. I will say it started as a debate and ended as an argument. We came to the conclusion that our differing views on it are irreconcilable. It is one of the 5% of topics that we just, flat out, don’t see eye to eye on.

I found myself getting all, “rawr,” about it. Why couldn’t Brent just see that I was right and he was wrong??? And I found myself as irritated as I had been back in college, back when I was a leader for the college Democrats on campus and debating with the college Republicans. And I worried (foolishly) that this would affect my relationship with Brent just like my relationship with some of the college Republicans had changed back in the day.

And then I thought about it.

That would be fucking dumb.

One of the most important things that I’ve learned over the past couple years is what the hell does it matter?

Brent – and many, many of my friends – stretch my mind. While my opinion on any given topic may not change, my approach sometimes does. And that’s one of the most valuable gifts a friend can give.

So, while Brent and I have agreed that this topic is part of our 5% of vehemently disagreed upon topics, that doesn’t mean that we won’t circle back around to it. It certainly doesn’t mean that we won’t argue about (m)any other topics as they come up in the news or in our minds.

Posted by: mydarkestplaces | April 18, 2013

Depression 4.0

At some point I’m going to have to start coming up with new titles for these posts, but at this exact moment before my coffee has hit, I don’t really have the creativity to do so.

So here we are. My fourth post (ish) about depression.

I’m very lucky and blessed that I have an abundance of friends who don’t suffer chemical depression. Like anybody, they occasionally suffer from situational depression – the circumstances they find themselves in when the universe seems to just be piling on.I’m happy for them. More, I think it’s important for me to have them in my life.

However, when I’m suffering a downswing, or just in general talking about depression, these friends don’t necessarily “get” it. They know that I’m hurting. They know I’m frustrated. They know I’m suffering immense mental anguish. And they want to fix it. And that’s so laudable. In the good times, and on the fringes of the bad, knowing that I have friends who want to ease my hurt is a comfort, a salve.

But as I’ve addressed in this space before, chemical depression isn’t something that can be beat. It’s a siege. It can’t be fixed. It can be allayed. It can be pushed back, but it’s always there.

I know it’s difficult for people who don’t suffer chemical depression to understand it. Even if you’re not a “fixer”, I imagine it would be tough to look at someone like me – a good job, for a good company; an incredibly loving and comforting family; a wealth of friends who never give up on me even when I drop off the planet – and say, “what does she have to be depressed about?” (If you know me in any way you know that this is often a refrain that runs through my head about myself and I do suffer from depression)

I wish I could explain how chemical depression works. But I was a history major and barely passed chemistry and never took anatomy. So, I’ll leave that to the folks over at PsychCentral. My description is a little more floral.

The problem with depression is even though you know something intellectually, even though you can see where you should be and where you need to be. It’s hard to actualize how to get there. You’re like Sisyphus, but you’re forced to crawl on your hands and knees – which are tied to each other – and before you even get to the mountainside you have to cross a river filled with jello. You can look up and see your goal, and you can start working towards it, and maybe you make a little bit of progress, but getting there is nigh impossible. However, maybe you make a little bit of progress. You’ve made the snack shack halfway up the mountain, you get to rest on the plateau ready to push on and get to the top. You soldier on again. And finally, you get there. You’ve made it out. You’re at the top. Things are golden. And then you fall back and the battle starts all over again.

This cycle, this battle, much like Sisyphus’s, doesn’t end. Its timing may vary. Sometimes the cycle lasts six months, six days, six years. It’s hard to tell when you’re going to be knocked back on your ass so you’re always concerned today is going to be the day. The feather knocking the boulder backwards could be as little as a bad day at work or as major as losing a loved one.

For what it’s worth, I’m more than a little scared right now because I do feel like I’m reaching the top of the mountain. And I don’t know whether this will be one of the times the mountain just continues to grow or whether I’m going to be knocked back on my ass. Time will tell. It’s a comfort to me knowing my friends – depressed or not – are there for me unflinchingly and unquestioningly.

For those who may read this who don’t suffer depression, I hope this helps you understand where my head is at any given time. I hope you have a little more patience (or less depending on the situation). I hope not that you stop trying to fix it for me, but think about where I might be emotionally and mentally before you try and fix it.

I love that you want to. I love that you are unquestionably there for me. But sometimes I just need someone to listen when I bitch, to lean in to as a shoulder when I need to cry, buy me a drink when I need to get drunk, give me a hug when I need a hug. Just being there is sometimes enough.

Posted by: mydarkestplaces | April 7, 2013

End It Movement (and more)

A person I follow on Twitter sent out this riveting and incredibly well put together survey/quiz thing about a person’s slavery footprint.

Natch, I took it.

And it was incredible. The facts about this world, this 21st century world, this world that still relies so heavily and strongly on indentured, conscripted, or flat out enslaved people. It’s nauseating to think about.

The cotton in our clothes, the components in our electronics, the flair in our makeup. Chances are better than even that something that you have consumed and/or will consume and/or something you use on a regular basis has been helped along in its life cycle by a slave.

Read More…

Posted by: mydarkestplaces | March 10, 2013

The West Wing

To continue with the theme from awhile ago, let’s talk some more about seeing things you remember as a young person through the eyes of an adult – and a little more life experience. This one, at least, is a little more light-hearted.

When I was in college, my favorite TV show – hands down – was the West Wing. I longed to be Josh Lyman. I definitely didn’t want to be the person in charge (the President or Leo), but boy did I want to be the person who made it happen. Hence, Josh. Aaron Sorkin’s writing was fantastic. Every episode was tension wrought. Whether that tension centered around international incidents or Donna’s love life varied, but the tension was always there. Optimism laced the script throughout the seasons (even seasons 5 and 6, the ones after Sorkin left the show). The characters leading the fictional United States wanted the best for the country. They wanted the best for every citizen. They wanted to stick it to the Republicans (when I was 20 that held a lot of appeal for me).

I was, unequivocally, what I call a “West Wing Democrat”. And I know I wasn’t the only kid who got involved, or wanted to get involved, with politics because of that show. An entire generation of kids was inspired to go to Washington, D.C., and work for our Representatives (or home to work on campaigns) so that we could be the next Josh Lyman or Toby Ziegler or C.J. Cregg.

Among the many problems though, is that my generation (and especially the ones that came after) is a generation with a real immediate gratification complex. We want to be hired into the Senior Staff of the White House or Senate and nobody really told us just how much work goes into getting to that level.

Flash forward from 20 to 22. I’ve just graduated from college and am, naturally, looking for a job in politics. I go to work for the Maine Democratic Party. Better, it’s through part of Howard Dean’s 50-State Plan. So here I am, ready to make a huge difference. I’m going to affect change. I’m going to be the hope that’s seen in the world. Of course, no one told me that campaigns are incredibly hard work. And that when you’re just starting out you’re not writing policy or speeches, you’re going door-to-door fighting with people who want nothing to do with what you’re selling. Following six of the most miserable months of my professional career, and one particularly devastating loss,  I got the hell out of there.

Turns out that was the best decision I’ve ever made.

I’d tasted politics, and found out that – much like seafood – I didn’t like it. At all. My memories of The West Wing stayed strong, though. Strong enough that, fast forward another few years, when The West Wing started streaming on Netflix come Christmas 2012, I thought it the most magical gift ever given to me. I could now watch West Wing at my leisure. I could watch ten episodes in a row and not have to worry about getting up to change DVDs. I could watch twenty episodes and not have to worry about accidentally damaging the DVDs by leaving them out of their packaging.

I curled up, iPad close to hand, down comforter pulled up to my chin, head propped on pillows and fleece throws.

I turned it on.

My nostalgia assuaged, the quality of the show remains strong. Aaron Sorkin’s writing stands the test of time and, unfortunately, many of the issues Sorkin and his team address throughout remain pertinent today.* Without a doubt, Martin Sheen, John Spencer (may he RIP), Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford – the entire cast, really – put in such incredible performances. They are smart, they are empathetic. Even when you hate them, you love them. It’s one of those rare shows that deserved every single one of the awards it won.

That being said, instead of voraciously watching all 150+ episodes I’ve cycled through the first season and some of the second, but don’t go too much farther than that. I don’t care that much about politics anymore. From anything written on this blog, or that I’ve put online, know that it’s not that I don’t care about issues or my community anymore. It’s that I don’t want to look at the ugly underbelly. In Season 1, Episode 4 Leo says, “There are two things you never want to let people see how you make them: laws and sausages.”

I hate seeing and hearing the extremely partisan, extremely bitter fighting that happens in Augusta and Washington, D.C. It’s incredibly rare these days that any bills that really matter pass quietly. What seems to have been forgotten along the way is that, much like kids take their behavioral cues from their parents, the public take their behavioral cues from their representatives. This isn’t a chicken or egg thing – if our representatives modeled civil behavior and discourse then maybe, just maybe, there would be less vitriol across the board.

In civility’s absence though, I find myself – like a lot of my generation – avoiding government and politics. I can improve and contribute to the community just fine while not embroiling myself in the ickyness (technical term) of politics. So that’s what I’ll do. And I’ll continue to watch and re-watch seasons one and two of The West Wing and remember, with fondness, being an idealistic twenty year old. Someone who used to think that working in the system was the best way to change the system. Now I’m just going to ignore the system and hope that those of us on the ground are able to make the kind of difference we’d all like to see in the world.

*Although, as I noted on either Twitter or Facebook as I was re-watching, it’s kind of awesome to re-watch some of the episodes and have some of the issues resolved. For example, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell plays a prominent role in an early episode.

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