Homeless hero

What do Faron Hall and Susan Boyle have in common? They both exceeded people’s low expectations of them.

You’ve probably heard of Susan Boyle, whose audition on Britain’s Got Talent shocked everyone. Who would have thought that a homely woman could have a beautiful singing voice?

Faron HallFaron Hall is a homeless, Dakota man who saved the life of a drowning teenager. Who would have thought that a homeless man would risk his own life to save the life of a stranger?

I’m not imagining this. People interviewed on TV were uniformly shocked that a homeless man would emerge as the hero of this life-and-death story. But why?

Aren’t homeless people human beings, the same as you and me? In a crisis, shouldn’t we expect a homeless person to respond as any other human being would respond?

Hall’s story, like Susan Boyle’s, is an example of the halo effect:

People seem not to think of other individuals in mixed terms; instead we seem to see each person as roughly good or roughly bad across all categories of measurement.

The halo effect occurs when our first impression of someone (e.g. a beautiful woman) is positive, and we assume good things about her in other respects. For example, she might impress a prospective employer and receive a job offer despite a weak resume.

The reverse halo effect occurs when our first impression of someone (e.g. a homeless man) is negative. Reflexively we assume there’s no good in him. In Mr. Hall’s case, that would be a big mistake:

Mr. Hall […] was sharing a beer with a friend, Wayne Spence, downriver from the bridge when he heard a loud splash. In a light-hearted mood after a long day of collecting cans, he remembers saying, “Damn, that must have hurt.”

But humour turned to shock when they spotted the teen screaming for help 40 metres out on the fast-moving river. Living life on the margins helped him decided what to do next. “People ignore me,” he says. “But I don’t ignore them. We look out for one another out here.”

He threw off his backpack, kicked off his old black dress shoes and jumped into the chilly water.

“When I got to the kid, he started fighting me,” says Mr. Hall, pointing to a bloody scar on his forehead where the teen socked him. “I had to smack him back, tell him, ‘Hey, I’m here to help you.'” He’d pulled the teen within 20 metres of shore when his adrenalin stalled and fatigue set in. “It’s too damn cold,” he remembers yelling to Mr. Spence, who was standing along the shore.

“You can’t let go, you can make it,” Mr. Spence yelled back, before wading up to his knees in the water to drag his friend and the petrified teen to the shore.


I might go off at a moment’s notice

Whenever a person with psychiatric problems engages in alarming behaviour, the media eagerly interviews his or her neighbours. You can count on one of the neighbours to say,

He kept to himself.

For the record:  I keep to myself, too.

Be forewarned. Who knows what I might be capable of?

Anxiety dreams

This post of Zayna’s got me thinking about anxiety dreams.

Once upon a time, I was a preacher. I had two anxiety dreams in that distant part of my life that still amuse me.

In the first, I stepped up to the lecturn after one of our elders — an exceptionally tall man — had been speaking. The microphone was way above my head. I kept jumping and jumping, but I just couldn’t grasp it to bring it down to my level.

In the other, I announced the text I was going to preach from, and then tried to turn to it in the Bible. Only I couldn’t find it. I did my best to put a brave face on things:  smiling and saying, “That’s right, it’s just past Isaiah”, or “… just before Paul’s letters” or whatever. Doggedly I flipped the pages one way, and then the other way, but I simply couldn’t find my text. Meanwhile, the entire time I had allotted for the sermon was being consumed with me searching futilely, like someone who had never opened a Bible in his life. Some preacher I was!

Is anyone else inclined to share?

Hannah Wooll, Anxiety Dream(Hannah Wooll, Anxiety Dream)

Actually, death is not beautiful

This photograph packs such an emotional wallop, I decided to share it even though I find it very troubling:

apparently beautiful suicide

It’s a photo of a dead woman lying on top of a car. A few minutes earlier, she had leapt from the observation platform of the Empire State Building. The force of her landing caved in the roof of the car and smashed out its windows.

Jason Kottke, who has the full story, calls it the most beautiful suicide.

Actually, no. It’s a beautiful photograph, despite the subject matter.

Suicide is never beautiful. Death is never beautiful. I know:  there have been several suicides in my family, plus several unsuccessful suicide attempts. Suicide is always a tragedy.

I will always remember a conversation I had with one member of my immediate family. Whenever anything bad happened to her, she would immediately think, “I wish I was dead.” And I don’t mean whenever something really bad happened to her — any small setback would produce the same reflexive thought.

Somewhere in her mind, there lurked the idea that death was beautiful:  the solution to all of life’s manifold problems. I wonder whether other people have the same idea. People who themselves might be potential suicide candidates.

Death is ugly. You want beauty?

Glenn Gould(Glenn Gould)

Life is beautiful.
boys laughing(by Flickr user GDabir)

Life is beautiful.
backlit, pregnant(photo by Pascal Renoux)

Life is beautiful.

Obama, the Democrats, and the psychology of decision making

Andrew Sullivan posted an email from me yesterday. (Without attribution, which is how Sullivan always publishes correspondence from his readers.)

The email brings two things together:  the Democratic primary process and the psychology of decision making. I’ll explain here what I didn’t explain there.

The Clinton candidacy
Hillary Clinton represents all that is familiar to Democrats. Not just name recognition and nostalgia (“Weren’t the 90s great, when Clinton was President?”), but also her brass-knuckle, partisan approach to politics.

If you have to make race an issue to beat your opponent, then do it. If you have to misrepresent your opponent’s record on a key issue, then do it.

That’s politics:  as in baseball, nice guys finish last; no one remembers who came in second (hence the win-at-all-costs mentality). “Politics ain’t [a game of] beanbag.”

That may be an ugly approach to getting elected, but it’s also a familiar one. That’s how the Republicans play the game. A lot of Democrats think that, to win, they must play the game the way Karl Rove did.

The Obama candidacy
Barack Obama represents authentic change. A black candidate? A consensus-builder who is appealing to blacks and whites, Independents and even many Republicans? Is it possible to win at the game of politics with a candidate like that?

That’s where the psychology of decision making becomes a factor. On the face of it, to nominate Obama looks risky:  which leads to the “high diving board” analogy in my email to Andrew Sullivan.

Surely saner heads will prevail when the Democrats think things through!


Lars and the Real Girl (and Calvin and Hobbes)

Last night I went to see a movie, Lars and the Real Girl. When I tell you the premise of the movie, you might guess that it’s a set-up for a lot of crude humour. You’d be wrong.

In one key respect, the movie is akin to the great comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes.

Lars (Ryan Gosling) lives on the same property as his brother and sister-in-law. They have turned the garage into a kind of granny flat for him.

It isn’t that they don’t care about him. It’s Lars himself who prefers the arrangement. Lars is functional enough to hold down a job, but otherwise he is steadily retreating into himself. He is well on his way to becoming a recluse.

Things take a very strange twist when Lars buys himself a “love doll”. Not the inflatable kind, but the latest scientific model:  made from very life-like materials, with limbs that can be positioned just where you want them.

Lars introduces “Bianca” to his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer). He seems to think that he can pull it off — his family won’t notice that Bianca is a lifeless, latex sex toy.

The truth is rather darker than that. Lars is genuinely delusional:  he believes that Bianca is a real person. He doesn’t regard her as a sex toy. He doesn’t use her for that purpose, even though he considers her his girlfriend.

Lars and Bianca

Karin has been concerned about Lars for some time. Thrown off balance by the latest development, she plays along with Lars in lieu of a better strategy. And then she improvises (I am paraphrasing the dialogue from memory):

Lars, your brother is worried about Bianca. She doesn’t look so well. Maybe Bianca is just having trouble adjusting to the climate, but we think she should see a doctor. Just to be on the safe side.

Gus quickly picks up on Karin’s cue.

That’s right, Lars. We should all go to the doctor together. Tomorrow.

Lars hesitates. A shadow of doubt crosses his face. In the audience, we wonder:  does he realize it’s a trick? But Karin’s ad-lib is a good one. It makes sense within Lars’s frame of reference. And so he agrees that Bianca should see a doctor.

The movie is stimulating because the dialogue constantly operates at two levels. There is Lars’s reality, in which Bianca is a living person who might have need of a doctor. And there is everyone else’s reality, in which Bianca is a sex toy and Lars is the one who needs help.

This is where the movie reminds me of Calvin and Hobbes:  in its skillful handling of a premise where reality functions at two levels at once.

Some part of Lars must be aware that Bianca is merely a doll. In one scene, Karin and Lars have an argument. Karin is careful not to contradict Lars’s frame of reference, or he would (almost literally) cease to hear her. And yet, Karin says things that only really make sense if Lars understands that Bianca is merely a doll.

This movie could have gone terribly wrong. It is a high-risk project that requires everyone to get things pitch-perfect. Given the subject matter, any misstep would be cringe-inducing.

The director assumes intelligence on the part of the audience. Time and again, small points of interest are communicated solely through body language. Gosling, in particular, is masterful at conveying information just by a rigid posture, or an unnatural stillness of his face. When his character is agitated, Gosling’s physical mannerisms are utterly perfect. (I should know:  I worked with emotionally troubled adults for several years.)

The movie has moments that are very funny, but we are never laughing at Lars. (OK, we may laugh at him a little, but never in a mean-spirited way.)

Other scenes are poignant. The movie works well as a drama. What is the function of this delusion in the development of Lars’s psyche? What has triggered it? How will it be resolved?

The immediate effect of the delusion is surprisingly positive. Lars begins to come out of himself and engage the world. He even accepts an invitation to a party with his colleagues from work.

But of course, it can’t be healthy in the long run. Something has to give.

The only flaw in this movie is that, inevitably, it stretches credulity to the breaking point. For example, the whole community rallies in support of Lars. In the real world, some people would be cruel. Even Lars’s family might not be able to deal with the situation (although the movie handles the family’s reaction very well. Karin is completely supportive; Gus is ambivalent).

But let’s set that quibble aside. Movies require that we suspend our disbelief, and allow the story to carry us where it will. At one point, my friend snorted, “As if!”, but she enjoyed the movie just as much as I did.

In sum:  an interesting premise; humour; pathos; first-rate acting; dialogue that works at multiple levels. Highly recommended.

The lingering goodbye

When a relationship ends, it’s not just a person that you part company with. You also leave behind the hopes and dreams that the person once kindled in you.

That’s the hardest part, I suspect. I was the one who left my marriage — a long time ago, now. But even the person who leaves suffers the loss of the hopes and dreams that once blazed in the hearth of his heart.

The leaver doesn’t get off scot free. He (or she) is first to suffer the loss. He grieves as his precious hopes and dreams fade and die:  like watching a loved one succumb to a lingering, terminal illness. He grieves, then he screws up his courage, and he leaves.

The person who is left confronts grief in an instant:  like losing a loved one in a tragic accident. I guess it’s worse that way; who’s to say?

The point is, I doubt that you still love him, all these years later. I doubt that you still grieve the loss of that relationship per se. Rather, it’s the promise that the relationship once held out to you; the loss of your own innocence that can never be reclaimed.

That’s the hurt that smacks you upside the head when you listen to Mozart, or receive Columbian roses, and you think of him.

The Grief of Women, by Tim Holmes

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