Being Human – Love, loyalty and friendship

 

“You could say we’re all from different parts of the same country.” – Mitchell, Being Human

Imagine if some unspeakable change took place in your life, and you found yourself on the outside during every moment of every day? This is the story of Being Human, the story of a ghost named Annie, a vampire (Mitchell) and a werewolf  (George) who become roommates in a rundown flat in Bristol.  As Annie says, “we’ve driven off the edge of the map but we’re still travelling.”

When you’ve driven off the edge of the world, fallen out of human society so completely that you cannot find your way back, your redemption becomes the company of others who are also on the outside: your companions in an unbelievable world, a world you have been thrown into. You come to  know each other and love each other more than ordinary humans ever could.

The BBC 3 program Being Human explores the lives of three characters who are no longer human. They have been cast out, but they find each other, as Annie says: “So. What have we got left to look forward to? Us refugees. The flotsam and jetsam of death. Maybe, if we still deserve such a thing as mercy, we find each other.”

Being Human is a courageous program – like its characters, it drives off the map and encounters its audience there, in a strange, unbelievable world. But even if a vampire, and werewolf and a ghost are not human, they turn out to be more human than we are. Like three strangers who meet on a train and have only a few hours to connect before parting ways forever, in a short time, these characters come to love each other as deeply as life-long companions. They reveal everything. They are already broken beyond repair, and are freed of the need to prove their worth to others.

The premise of this show—that these characters are thrown here as the flotsam and jetsam of death—reminds me of Heidegger’s description of the human condition in the twentieth century. “We are thrown into the world,” he says. We don’t emerge from a tradition, since traditions have broken down. We are not a part of an eternal and orderly fabric created by an all-knowing God, because that God is dead. And in His place is a God that Walter Wink, an American theologian, tells us is trapped in a cage by the brokenness of creation. God made this world, but God is not its master. When we pray, we rattle God’s cage; we wake him up, call on him to break himself free.

Mitchell: “God made man in His own image. What if that included His rage? And His spite. And His indifference. And His cruelty. What if God made us too? We’re all his children, you see. God’s a bit of a bastard. Look at us both. Covered in other people’s blood and talking about morality.”

In this world where we cannot call on God the all-knowing, God the arbiter of right and wrong, our actions take precedence. We act out our love for one another; we rescue each other from the ends of the earth with our compassion. God is found in these moments of grace, as when Sister Helen Préjean says to the condemned prisoner when he’s about to be executed in the movie Dead Man Walking: “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”

As when the character Mitchell crosses into Purgatory to rescue Annie and bring her back, not to the world of the living, but back into the knot of love that binds the three friends together, like blood vessels intertwined—warm, pulsing and enveloping.

Or like the eternal Celtic knot of love, loyalty and friendship. The ghost, the vampire and the werewolf are cold out there on the edge of the world, but they are transformed by their humanity, which, it turns out, is no longer about being biologically human, or even alive in the usual sense. It is an ineffable connection that emerges as more than the sum of all its parts.

Maybe I should write a letter to Toby Whithouse, the creator of this show, to thank him for showing me that television can be a platform for such a courageous art form. I was raised on a steady diet of American commercial television, with a little CBC and BBC thrown in.  American TV can rarely, if ever,  match programs like Being Human, which despite a small budget,  has wonderful script writing, carefully designed sets, and is permeated with a sense of the importance of nurturing the humanity of its characters as well as the audience. Little, if anything, that appears in the show is there by accident. Every prop, costume element and relationship serves a purpose.

Having read bell hooks, I learned to critique American mainstream television, which seems to be afflicted by an inability to move beyond certain racial tropes that it plays out again and again. For example, the African-American as confidante to the white protagonist; the African American who has special spiritual powers (e.g. Guinan in Star Trek, played by Whoopi Goldberg); the tendency to kill off African-American characters within the opening moments of many programs; the African-American as criminal. The total absence of Arab (or Arab-seeming) characters who are not terrorists.  The repeated rape and/or murder of women and the the avenging these crimes, without any sense of pushing back against the source of the violence. The endlessly-repeated theme of redemptive violence permeates pretty much everything:

“The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known.

According to this myth, life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.” – Walter Wink

Lack of attention is part of the myth of redemptive violence. Instead of attending to the other, you attack the other. Instead of risking disorder, you preserve certainty by deferring to the violence that ensures security and predictability. You never attend to the disorderly facts of real life and their meaning.

This lack of attention is at the heart of a great many American TV programs. Instead of creating detail and having deference for a unique story and characters, there is formula: each episode the same as the last. The triumph of order over chaos, safety over danger, again and again. Simple and dumb, in the sense of being unable to speak to the heart.

Outside of the borders of the myth of redemptive violence, we find a wealth of stories, like those of Being Human, tracing acts of courage and love. They are so numerous they cannot be contained. We find these stories on television, in theatres, in books, on the stage, on canvas, in galleries, music halls, churches, temples—everywhere.  Small acts of love that need only to be noticed in order for them to become miracles.

Complexity – everywhere complexity

When it comes to such complex systems as the human body, I doubt there could be a single root cause for a problem like obesity. I know Gary Taubes (among others) tends to see the argument that obesity is multi-factorial as an excuse to do bad science. But even though much of what the average layperson knows about obesity and how to deal with it is inadequate and often based on bad science, that does not mean the problem of obesity can be reduced to one root cause. Reducing complex problems to the most simple explanation works better in math and physics; it does not work so well with human biology. Perhaps the best chance for success in treating obesity is to address the problem from many angles at once – diet, exercise, stress management, improved sleep, treatment of deficiencies, treatment of emotional problems, etc.

A visit to Pass Control

This morning I went to Pass Control. I waited in line until the commissionaire called me forward on his intercom. He pushed open a metal drawer, where I placed my forms and ID. He closed the drawer and did the paperwork to get me a temporary pass, which he slid into the metal drawer. I took the card and sat back in my seat. A little while later, an old gentleman in uniform came to the entrance and called out “Pass Control! Anyone for Pass Control?” I got up and went with him. We passed through two sets of security doors, turned right, and then passed through another door. It had a Men’s Washroom sign on it. I was starting to feel a little nervous. Once through the Men’s Washroom door, we walked past the men’s and women’s washrooms and arrived at an elevator. Then we went down, down, down until we reached Pass Control. The old man left me there and I took a number. On a bulletin board nearby were posters advertising wanted men and posters offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of a variety of murderers and kidnappers. It was called the Military Police board. When my number was called, the clerk said “No. You need the person whose name is on this card (she handed me a business card) to approve this other person’s signature.” Back to my seat to wait for the elderly man in uniform, then up, up, up, and through the Men’s Washroom door, back out through the security doors and into the line-up. I slid my temporary pass once again into the metal drawer, got back my own ID and left the building.

Being Human

John Mitchell: I’ve got this friend. He says the human condition, the human nature, ‘being human’ – is to be cold and alone. Like someone lost in the woods. It’s safe to say he’s a ‘glass-is-half-empty’ kind of guy. And I see nature differently. I see the ancient machinery of the world. Elegant and ferocious, neither good nor bad, it’s full of beautiful things, unspeakable things. The trick is to keep them hidden – until the right moment.”

I happened upon the BBC version of Being Human on Netflix. As a Canadian, most of my TV viewing has been either American or CBC programs. Seeing BBC’s Being Human has made me realize how truly awful most mainstream American TV and film actually is. It is formulaic, boring, poorly acted, poorly written and beats the same themes of racism, sexual repression and violence to death over and over again. Now, I have NOT seen any HBO programs and I suspect there may be some very good shows on HBO.

What I love about Being Human is that the program is courageous. Nothing happens that is not fully considered – thought through all the way. If there is violence, it has a purpose, one that the actors, the writers, the set designers – everyone involved – seems to be aware of.

The show is a compassionate, funny, well thought-out exploration of the dark side of being human through the lives of people who are no longer human. The only American program that I can think of that reminds me of BH is Joan of Arcadia, which also seemed to move beyond unreflected violence and formulaic script writing to explore the depths of human life. But of course it was cancelled after two years!

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As far as American TV is concerned, I have gone on strike; called a boycott. I have decided that there is just so much wonderful programming to be found elsewhere that it will take me the rest of my life just to scratch the surface.

Braveheart has left the building

Now that the USADA report is out,  I’ve been thinking about how it could be that the sport of cycling was so dirty for so long; that an aggressive and single-minded athlete like Armstrong, for whom winning at all costs is more important than any else, could be so successful. I also wonder why we focus so much on medals. In Canada, I know there was been some discussion about why it is that government sponsorship for athletes destined to the Olympics is so heavily weighted in favour of winning medals, as opposed to excelling in a sport, whether that leads to medals or not.

There is a kind of contradiction in highly competitive sports. The intense competition brings out the best athletes, and their best performances. But it also brings out, and encourages, our worst qualities – like we have seen with Armstrong. Maybe the shocking extent of the problems in cycling will push the organizations and corporations attached to this sport to rethink their values – that competing in sports should not be about winning at all costs, and that we (the fans) need to stop looking to these athletes to fulfill our cultural fantasies about heroism. After all, the Tour de France is not Braveheart. If a person needs a hero, why don’t they get on a bike, or put on some runners, maybe get out the skis, and become their own hero? Failing that, why not just go see a movie?

A litte progress on a long road

I rode 18 k yesterday and 17.5 k today. Finally my knee, which has been bothering me for a couple of months, has stopped hurting. I didn’t road ride for a couple of weeks, and only did one off-road ride that involved a lot of crashing, walking through rocks, and getting stuck (!) in mud.

So I was surprised to get on my bike yesterday and go faster and farther than I have any other time this year. It felt so great! It seems kind of strange that by not cycling I seem to have gotten better. Of course in the meantime I was walking 1 to 2 hours a day and doing yoga.

I still have not lost much weight, but I am back in the weight loss program that I was in before, weighing and measuring everything; logging all my food. I seem to have my calories back to the right level and I am never hungry, so hopefully things will start to move now.

Before I had my son, I was super-fit. I never expected that I would ever be that fit, but I actually achieved something I had only dreamed of. I really miss how I felt then – like I could do anything I wanted – try a new sport, run top speed for the bus, do a century on my bike, x-c ski with my super-fit friends (one is even a retired pro cyclist).  I hope to get back there again. I do realize that I’m older and it will be different, but just the same.

Other than when I’m writing – poetry, an article, or something else that really means a lot to me, exercise is pretty much the only time when I feel completely alive, as if I am in the right place at the right time and couldn’t be doing anything else. Of course, I don’t necessarily feel that way when it is 35 degrees outside and I am coughing up a lung on my bike and my knee is aching. But I did feel that way today.

I wonder if I will regain that feeling of so many possibilities – that  I could do so many things physically – I really miss it.

The Secret Race – Inside the competition machine

Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race, accomplishes many things. First and foremost, from Hamilton’s perspective, it frees him from lies. He had lied so much during his cycling career that telling the truth in general was not enough. He needed to retell his whole story in detail – truthfully this time – in order to free himself.

It was as if he had gotten caught in a web of deceit and the only way out of it was to weave another, truer story. Surely all autobiographies are to some extent fiction, in that they only reflect the past as the teller remembers it, in a subjective way. But Hamilton engaged Daniel Coyne to help him tell a truer tale. The writer and journalist corroborated the details of Tyler’s account, making it more accurate and complete. The end result is a detailed, excruciating tale that recasts Hamilton’s past as a competitive cyclist in a much more painful and accurate light, freeing him from the lies of his past.

Not that Hamilton’s motivation is only to exonerate himself to his own conscience. The book is intended to shake up the sport of cycling, and given that it was originally scheduled for release on Lance Armstrong’s birthday, Hamilton no doubt intends for the book’s revelations to shake Armstrong’s resolve to continue lying about his own use of performance enhancing drugs.

So, exoneration for Hamilton, and (yet another) challenge to Armstrong to tell the truth:  two things this book does.

A third is dispelling the myth that since during the era when Hamilton and Armstrong competed, all the professional cyclists were doping, it was a level playing field. Not so, says Hamilton (and David Millar, and Jonathan Vaughters). Some riders responded really well to drugs, and this gave them an advantage over others who responded less, meaning, for example, that slower riders could surpass superior riders because of how their biology interacted with EPO.

Also, the richer and more influential the cyclist, the better his access to doping doctors, cutting edge methods for avoiding detection, the latest drugs, etc. He would have a lot of advantages. If you were doping without these advantages, you would be more likely to be caught, more likely to damage your health, and you would probably be slower too. Not exactly a level playing field.

But, really, even without the drugs, cycling, like other very competitive sports where athletes and their sponsors stake their reputations and their fortunes on winning, would still not be a level playing field.

Athletes from rich countries have great advantages over those from poor countries – they have better training, equipment, nutrition, coaching, education, travel, competition opportunities – the list goes on and on. And in cycling, athletes win prize money and sponsorships, which in turn allow them to further cement their advantages.

Getting rid of doping is probably important not because the sport would be more fair (I don’t really think it would be), but because it would be safer for athletes. They would not have to risk their health by taking drugs that could cause heart attacks, cancer and other serious problems.

And finally, it would free athletes from having to choose between living an honest life and living a life of deceit and constant stress. As Hamilton has made clear, no amount of glory, adulation or money could compensate for the loss of an honest life.

Hamilton has said many times that he takes full responsibility for doping – that it was his own free choice. I disagree. Many of the top cyclists of that period were pressured to take PEDs by doctors, coaches and mentors whose job it was to ensure their well-being and success.

These riders were also under a pressure to keep their teams winning so that riders and staff would not lose their jobs.

Doctors are among the most trusted of all authority figures, and coaches are a close second to athletes who rely on them. To expect a young athlete to freely choose not to dope when his doctor and coach are handing him EPO is unrealistic to say the least, and to place all the blame on the individual cyclists misses the point – doping was a part of a very compelling, high pressure culture, and refusing to participate meant giving up any chance of winning.

Cleaning up cycling is in no way the sole responsibility of individual athletes, and neither is the choice to dope. That choice is the product of cycling’s competition machine.

The Limitations of Occam’s Razor in Biological Science

Gary Taubes’ work changed my life and set me on a journey of reading nutrition and health research as well as eating and exercising differently. However, Taubes himself says that he “fell through the looking glass” when he discovered research on carbohydrates and weight loss that he asserts was ignored by the mainstream. Given the recommendations of the American Heart Assoc, American Diabetes Assoc, etc, it appears he was right.

But I do think that Gary has remained focused on the low-carb meme for too long and it is time for him to move on. I think his physics background has tempted him to want to reduce the problem of obesity to single, basic cause, as one would do in hard sciences. Gary refers to Occam’s razor in this regard in his book Good Calories Bad Calories – that “other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one.”  When I first read GCBC, I thought this was a very useful approach, but now, having read more widely in the field of alternative health and diet, I have begun to see that biological systems are very complex and adaptable, and that more than one approach can lead to the same result. Indeed, there are probably elite athletes who are vegetarians, vegans, omnivores, paleo followers, low-carbers,  etc. And they all perform at extraordinary levels. On paper, maybe one or two of these diets are better, but in practice, individuals need to determine what’s best for them.  Perhaps the simplest explanation is still preferable, but it seems clear than there is no single path to optimal health / weight loss. Arriving at your destination takes each person along a different route, in a way similar to that of creative journeys or endeavours.

Now it is time for Gary Taubes to change his direction away from his reductive view that carbohydrate restriction is the only truly effective path to weight loss and optimal health. He is one of the most interesting and intelligent health writers working today, and I would like to see him come back through the looking glass and apply his formidable research, writing and discernment skills to other aspects of the problem of health.

http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/gary_taubes_gina_kolata_what_m.php

Stephan Guyenet sums up the problem of obesity in a crazy food world:

‎”Food intake is regulated by a ‘symphony’ of signals that the brain receives and uses to determine whether or not a person will eat. Some of these signals are from sensory organs and the brain itself, while others are hormones in the circulation coming from the gut, body fat, the pancreas, and elsewhere. This finely tuned system is disrupted when a susceptible person is exposed to abundant, energy-dense, tasty food, in an environment that minimizes physical activity and sleep, and promotes psychological stress.”

http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.ca/2012/07/interview-with-aitor-calero-of-directo.html#more

Bicycle Love

At Bridgehead in Westboro – I biked here from home, and the round trip will be about 14 kms. After a long time without much regular biking, I am getting back into commuting everywhere on my bike. Learning how Tyler Hamilton rode for weeks with broken bones (his shoulder or his collarbone, depending on the race) has made me realize that I can do FAR more than I realize. I do long to be in shape again like I was before my son was born – at that time I was working out at the gym and biking between 50 and 140 kms per week, including commuting, mountain biking and touring. And I could ski for hours in the Gatineaus in winter.

Even though I have never been thin, and have struggled with my weight off and on, I didn’t really have a serious weight problem until I developed asthma a few years ago. Apparently it is the kind of asthma that medical residents (at the clinic where I am a patient) have a very hard time diagnosing. I must have seen about 4 of them over the course of a year, and even though I complained of wheezing and exhaustion, they all insisted I did not have asthma. To be fair, I did have severe sinusitis, which probably tricked them into thinking that was the problem. Finally, on my fifth try, I got a really experienced doctor who, after listening very carefully to my lungs, said I had asthma – or “reactive airway disease.”

Whatever! The Advair worked like a charm and in a few days the exhaustion lifted and I had energy again. Unfortunately, I was a good 40 pounds heavier than I had been six months before. At the weight loss clinic that I eventually attended, the doctor pronounced my sudden weight gain “unusual,” but nobody really knows why it happened, other than maybe a new medication I started, or the asthma. Or maybe all the Thai Express, but the question is why I wanted all those Thai Express curries in the first place (I later learned that each individual serving has 1000 calories – horrors). And nobody knows what caused the asthma either.

So anyway, I lost 20 pounds, but stupidly (or not), I took a really high-stress job with sometimes odd hours. It was exciting and I learned a lot, including how stress causes weight gain, since I am now almost back to where I started, give or take a few pounds.

This is where Tyler Hamilton comes in. Surely the task of losing the weight again and getting back into really good shape (like I used to be) will not be as daunting as his crazy journeys with broken bones, and teeth that wore down from clenching against all the pain.

Tyler crashing
Tyler crashing during the 2002 Giro d’Italia, where he broke his shoulder.

Unfortunately, what might be as daunting as Tyler’s journeys is contending with the self-consciousness and revulsion that I feel because I am fat. I have tried to like myself as I am, but I just don’t, no matter how I try. I feel that part of the reason is tied up with the pressure that is placed on women to conform with the images of young, thin women and girls that are used in advertising everywhere.

What a world we live in – everywhere, beauty is linked to thinness and youth, and everywhere, there are advertisings and offerings of food – junk food, gourmet food, pastries, chocolates, candies – and always, the people depicted enjoying these foods in ads are young and thin.

But it is not just the crazy beauty images combined with the crazy food world that leads me to feel this…intense dislike for my appearance sometimes. I think it also has to do with the kind of person I am. I am at my best when I can go mountain biking or x-c skiing for hours at a time, and I love being able to suddenly run for a bus without feeling like a sack of potatoes.

I think being fit and active is part of being fully human for me. Even though I am a writer and spend my working life in a sedentary occupation, I probably have never experienced as much joy as I have hurtling downhill on skis when the sky is the colour of the mediterranean sea, and the snow sparkles with millions of diamonds. I think this latter reason for disliking being fat is a legitimate one, and something worthy of acting on.

The former reason, that the world is a mess and corporations are lying to us about what beauty is, and what good food is, does not strike me as a good reason at all to whip myself back into shape. In fact, it almost makes me want to stay fat, or become even fatter, as a way of saying “fuck you” to these stupid structures.

I suspect that this beauty-as-thinness-junk-food complex might be behind the phenomenon of young women purposely making themselves ugly, or at least un-beautiful, with piercings in weird places, extra fat, shaved heads and lots of black stretchy clothing. I admire this response, because it defies the pressures to conform to everything we are taught, as women, about beauty and how to be attractive.

However, in the end, I think I would like to get back to being the super-fit mountain biker / pilates fanatic, since it is such a positive part of who I am and have been. And besides, I really enjoyed riding my bike today. Since dear Tyler inspired me with his broken bones and flying through the Alps, I have not reset the odometer on my bike.

By the time I get home today, I will have biked 80 kms in about a week and a half. I have enough experience to know I have to ease back into cycling slowly, and weather has also intervened. I am curious to see how many kms I will have on the odometer by the end of the season, in October.